Homily for Ash Wednesday
Theme: CHANGE OF HEART
By: Fr. Gerald M. Musa
Homily for Wednesday February 17 2021
Ash Wednesday reminds us that true religion is a matter of the heart. The prophet Joel called on the people to return to God with their whole heart (Joel 2:12); The Apostle Paul appealed to the hearts of the Corinthians to be reconciled with God (2 Corinthians 5:20). Jesus emphasised the role of the heart in relationship with God. He teaches the importance of performing good works and religious obligations without showmanship. He says we should give alms, pray and fast in the secrecy of our hearts so that God who sees our hearts will reward us accordingly (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18).
True religion requires an honest heart and a change of heart. This was the central message of the prophets for many centuries. At different points, people misunderstood religion as a demonstration of symbols and rituals and they gradually forgot the significance of those symbols and rituals. It became common for religious people to play to the gallery by displaying popular acts of piety that will make them appear deeply religious. The danger of acting to the gallery is the tendency to disconnect religion from a sincere heart and becomes an outward appearance that leaves the heart out.
One of the ways in which people of the Old Testament expressed grief, despair, sorrow as well as remorse and contrition was by tearing their garments. This symbolic act is a sign of penitence and repentance. Jacob expressed sorrow and despair by tearing his clothes and putting on sackcloth to mourn for his beloved son Joseph (Genesis 37:34). When Ahab repented from going after idols, he expressed his remorse as he tore his garments and put on sackcloth over his bare flesh” (1 Kings 21:7).
The symbolic action of tearing garments as a sign of repentance soon began to be abused by the people. The people began to dramatise this act without an iota of inward repentance. This was the reason why Joel challenged them by saying, “Tear your hearts and not your garments” (Joel 2:13). The prophet realised that it was easier for people to tear their garments than their hearts. Long time ago, David mentioned that the Lord is near to the broken hearted (Psalm 34:18 and that a sacrifice which is acceptable to God was a broken spirit and a contrite heart (Psalm 51:7).
Tearing of garment without repentance is similar to making a confession to God without an act of contrition that comes from the depth of the heart. Why will Prophet Joel ask the people of Israel to tear their hearts?” The many love stories of heart breaks and tears are usually caused by someone else or any unpleasant situation and are hardly self-inflicted. True love comes with tears and wounds. Any one who ventures into an honest and wholehearted love must be willing to tear his heart and to experience discomfort and pains. I wonder why some people say love is wicked. May be because love makes a wise person appear as a foolish person, and makes a person with good sight appear as a blind person; may be because love makes a miser unusually generous; may be because it makes people restless and can cause anguish and pain.
On Ash Wednesday we express our love for God through the spiritual exercises of prayers, almsgiving, and fasting. It is a time when we make sacrifices of subduing the pleasures of the flesh in order to purify the soul. Yes, Lent is a matter of the heart as it affords us the opportunity to renew our hearts. In his Lenten message for 2021 Pope Francis says
“Lent is a time for believing, for welcoming God into our lives and allowing him to “make his dwelling” among us (cf. Jn 14:23). Fasting involves being freed from all that weighs us down – like consumerism or an excess of information, whether true or false – in order to open the doors of our hearts to the One who comes to us, poor in all things, yet “full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14): the Son of God our Saviour.”
Let us pray that during this holy season, God will enkindle in our heart the fire of his love. I wish you a very fruitful Lenten season.