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Ash Wednesday 

March 8, 2000 

Fr. Sisterman, St. Dunstanís Church

Readings: Joel 2:12-17 and Matthew 6:16-21 

Jesus said, "When you fast, you are not to look glum as the hypocrites do. They change the appearance of their faces so that others may see they are fasting. I assure you they have already been repaid. When you fast, see to it that you groom your hair and wash your face. In that way no one can see you are fasting but your Father who is hidden and your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you."  

As we listen to the words of our Lord in today's Gospel I would say that there is a bit of a paradox here. "Comb your hair and wash your face." Just a few minutes ago I put ashes on our foreheads and the question arises: why is it that we would begin this Lenten season in this way? And what grim words are spoken to us! "Remember, 0 man, that dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." The words, of course, are taken from the third chapter of the Book of Genesis. As our first parents were escorted out of the Garden of Paradise, they heard these words: "By the sweat of your face shall you get bread to eat until you return to the ground from which you were taken; for you are dust and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19). 

"Remember, 0 man, that thou art dust. . ." A rather grim and gruesome thought. If we consider what dust is, blowing about, it really means nothing. It's a symbol of nothingness. Dust. You are dust. Consider all of the billions of people that have lived on this planet. And God says, "You are dust." That is grim, very grim. You are dust. You are nothing. If we were to hear those words and that's all there was to this Lenten celebration today, it would cause us to despair. Are we were to walk out of this church and think God has spoken to us and has told us that we are nothing? Is that all? Is that what this symbol of ashes on our foreheads means? 

Or is there another symbol as well, a symbol that complements those ashes? When I imposed those ashes on your foreheads, how did I do it? In the sign of a cross. And that gives meaning to the dust. That gives meaning to you and to me. We are dust, but we are dust that has been redeemed. 

Jesus our Lord. the Son of God, became dust. He became this earth. He took up this human nature of ours. And that dust was nailed to a cross. He died on that cross in order that you and I might remember that we are dust; but that we are redeemed dust. We are precious in the sight of the Lord. We are not merely nothing. We are God's own, for He has made us so. In the eighth chapter of the Letter to the Romans, Saint Paul writes this: "If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, then He who raised Christ from the dead will bring your mortal bodies to life also through His Spirit dwelling in you" (Romans 8:11).. The Spirit of God dwelling in us-in this dust - will raise us to life. 

It is to this end that you and I come together at the beginning of this Lenten season, as we begin this journey from ashes to Easter: that we truly might understand who we are and what we are before God. Indeed, we are dust. Truly we are nothing. But we are redeemed! We are a people for whom God has poured out His life. Getting hold of that rather elusive notion is what our Lenten work is all about. To help us do it, the Church traditionally lays before us three specific activities to involve us during the Lenten season: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. 

Prayer is the vocal prayer that we offer. But we interpret the idea of prayer even more widely. Prayer is also an attitude, a mind-set. "Let this mind be in you that is also in Christ Jesus." We are to have our thoughts and our minds turned toward God. That's why the prophet Joel said, "Rend your hearts and not your garments." For a Semite, the heart was the seat of all understanding and thought. "Change your thinking," Joel is saying. That is the attitude of prayer: realizing that we are always in the presence of God, every waking moment of our lives and even when we are sound asleep, God sustains us in the palm of His hand. That is the attitude of prayer that we must develop during the Lenten season. 

Fasting. Of course, we fast during Lent. The one full meal per day; abstaining from meat on the proper days. But even more so, fasting means that we would abstain from that which detracts from what should be our single-minded purpose of drawing closer to our God. Whatever obstructs our relationship with God, we abstain from it. It is ancient ascetic practice to fast: to say no to things that are legitimate in order that we might more easily say no to the things that are not legitimate; namely, temptation to sin. 

Thirdly, almsgiving. It means more than dropping the coin or the bill in the basket. It means more than writing the check to charity. All are well and good. But almsgiving is more than that. Almsgiving is also an attitude of mind, where we are more conscious of the fact that we are neighbors to one another, that we are brothers and sisters in the Lord, and that we respond to one another's needs. Whenever and however we do that, we call it almsgiving. 

The season before us is a beautiful one, a joyful one. It begins with the paradox of Ash Wednesday, but it blossoms in forty days in the celebration of Easter: new risen life in Christ, a life already begun in us. As I marked you with the sign of the cross today, remember that each and every one of us has already been marked in the same way at the beginning of our spiritual life, in the waters of Baptism. There too with the sign of the cross, words were spoken when we first received the very life of God Himself. "I baptize thee in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost."  

This we want to understand more deeply during the Lenten season. Our risen life doesn't wait until the end of the world. Our risen life doesn't wait for Easter. Our risen life has already begun. Let this season be a time in which we become more and more conscious of that wonderful fact. We are dust, but we are redeemed dust; made so by Christ our risen Lord! 

Please note:  These sermons are offered for your meditation.  If you wish to use them for some other purpose or republish them, please credit St. Dunstanís Church and Fr. Sisterman.