Father THOMAS IDERGARD SJ
Homily for Ash Wednesday
Joel 2:12-18; Ps 51; 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
St. Eugenia Catholic Church, Stockholm (English Mass 19:30)
Just as our muscles need exercise to perform their duties in our lives, also our spirit, that in us which is open to God, needs to be trained for its duty: to perceive how God seeks communion with us, and to respond properly. The Season of Lent, which starts today, is our spiritual bootcamp, as it were. And just like with physical training, the result of our spiritual training is pretty much dependent by our attitude.
When people all over the world today go to Holy Mass and are signed with the ash cross on the forehead, like we soon are to do here, it sets the tone for Lent: Humanity’s will to put ourselves in God’s place, i.e., to define good and evil based on ourselves and our own desires and feelings, and to rule the world without and against God, leads to death and destruction; to us not becoming those we were meant to be, but instead like the dust and the ashes and share fate with all other matter.
By becoming man in Jesus Christ, uniting himself with matter, God offers us liberation from this destiny of pure matter. In Christ, God shows us who each one of us truly can become helped by supernatural grace added to our human bodies and souls. With Christ, if we want to follow him, God takes us to his desired destination for us by offering our life realspirit, i.e., a share in God’s divine and eternal life. To accomplish this for us in a world permeated by our sin, our “no” to God, Jesus must be exposed to all our ungodliness and finally die so that death will not be the end to us. Yes, the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross is the whole point of his life.
Lent is our journey with Jesus to Jerusalem and his crucifixion, i.e., our liberation from an eternal death following our natural death, and therethrough our liberation from the fear of death. This fear is an existential fear making us cling to that, which is destined to become ashes; making us want to “have” and “experience” as much as we possibly can in our matter before everything ends. The liberation from fear of death is above all and finally a liberation to something: to the freedom to love, to give of oneself without counting gains and sacrifices. Based on the insight that with Jesus Christ everything will not end.
If we practice, train, to abstain and detach ourselves from perishable things and to do more of things contributing to real life, we actively allow the freedom that Christ obtains for us to enjoy, to manifest itself in our body and soul. So that we, when Lent is over have taken a step forward on the path towards our real goal, our true purpose. One can say that we as Christians in Lent return to a workout plan repeating the basic movements, what we really need so that we, just like in training of basic muscle movements, can lift heavier. In our spiritual life, this means to live in a more profound communion with God; being able to meet everything happening to us with a greater trust in God, and a greater openness to seek and do God’s will before anything else.
Ash Wednesday and the Season of Lent give a counter-image to the superficial and false message of our time and culture. The message that life is about to “grab” what can be taken; that one can precisely have everything, “succeed” on all fronts of life, if one only wants and dreams strongly enough, shouts loud enough, or gains enough power, popularity, “likes”, or money. But they also contradict religion as pure ”spirituality” as they are about doing things, with and in our flesh, matter. If our matter is not saved, transformed by divine grace, we cannot be saved. We are not only our matter, but we are also our matter.
Ash Wednesday and the Season of Lent thus point at the secret of true happiness, lasting inner peace. God never promises a life without suffering but promises to be with us in our suffering, and that they do not have the final word. My task is not self-intervention but to embrace that my life is about me becoming the one that my originator thought and meant me to be: the one God wished when he loved me into existence.
Jesus was very clear in today’s gospel that true fasting – our exercise to detach from something perishable and/or to do more of something truly important – is not a “show-off” earning us points in the eyes of other faithful. On the contrary, fasting in the sense prescribed by our Mother Church for Lent is a way for us to let Jesus come closer to us, and through us closer to all our relations, and thus, to the world.
First, as penitence for the sins of the world in such a way that our small acts of sacrifice allow Jesus’s ultimate sacrifice for the sins of the whole world to be manifested in our flesh, in our lives. We are of course only responsible for our personal sins, but because Jesus died for and by all human sins, i.e., humanity’s sinfulness, our penitential prayers and sacrifices for all sins of the world spiritually strengthen the Church, the Body of Christ, in her work for the conversion of all sinners. This Lent, let us particularly do penance for the sins of violent aggression, at home in our communities and in the world, as way of solving problems, including the sin of abortion, violence against the smallest and weakest; for the sins following the confusion regarding sexuality and gender, also among youth and children, inspired and expressed by Pride culture and Trans ideologies; for the sin of handling other humans and creation as instruments for short-term desires and benefits.
The second way our fasting allows Jesus to come closer to us, is as a help to increasingly order our individual lives according to what is valuable to God, enabling us, with the hope of resurrection, to serve one another in love, the will of the good of the other for his or her own sake, because we realise, we do not need to keep anything, not even ourselves, to ourselves. Finally, it is that which has a value to God that also has a lasting value to us. Amen.