by Fr. Scott Karnik
Ash Wednesday Homily (B) - February 14, 2018
God commands us to repent by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Jesus Christ gives us that formula to draw closer to Him and to repent of our sinfulness.
In the gospel, Jesus does not condemn exterior acts. Jesus does warn His disciples not to perform pious acts, such as almsgiving, to be admired by the crowd. That robs almsgiving of its spiritual value. Publicity makes the act a mere transaction. Jesus does not condemn public prayer. Jesus does condemn striking a pious attitude in prayer for publicity’s sake. Jesus does not condemn fasting. But Jesus does tell His disciples to take great care to disguise their piety when they fast. Jesus even suggests His disciples appear as if they’re going to a banquet instead. The pious practice of Ash Wednesday and Lent is not criticized, just the pious self-display of it.
But it is the exterior acts that reinforce the interior. The interior acts of repentance are essential. The exterior acts are essential to back up the interior ones. The prophet Joel in today’s first reading summons priests and people to repentance. Their return to Yahweh must be inward first, then outward. Joel warns the people of pending catastrophe in the first eleven verses of Chapter two. Then Joel calls the people to repentance in today’s verses. “Even now” suggests something other than imminent destruction is still possible with God. It gives the people hope. So even now, return to God with all your heart, mind, and soul. Joel encourages the people to turn away from sin and turn completely towards God. Participation in a communal liturgy of lament, to include fasting, mourning, and weeping, is encouraged. This ritual of contrition that Joel is calling for will symbolize the process of the Jewish community’s commitment to God. That’s what this Lenten season is all about, in a nutshell.
So what should we know? That Jesus encourages us to perform exterior acts of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. But remember to do it without calling attention to yourselves for the admiration of others. What should we do? Enter this Lent with sincerity and love. Do repent of your sinfulness from the inside out. Do reinforce your complete, faithful, and honest interior turning away from your sins with exterior practices like attending Mass, giving alms, praying in church, and going to confession. And do fast for 40 days as Jesus did. Why should I care? Because of the first two words in today’s first reading, “even now.” Joel says that “even now,” with catastrophe so close, repent and do penance, priest and people alike, everyone. Repent inside and out. Because we seek what is written in the last verse: “Then the Lord was stirred to concern for his land and took pity on his people.” We care so that the Lord will give us his forgiveness, his love, his mercy, and his salvation, so that we may be with Him in heaven one day. It starts here for us, inside and out.