17 February 2021

Homily - Ash Wednesday - 17 February 2021

Ash Wednesday

Dear brothers and sisters,

Each year on this day as we enter into the penitential season of Lent, we hear Jesus say to us, “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting…” (Matthew 6:16). Then, just a few moments later, we usually receive ashes directly on our foreheads in the sign of the cross. This custom has always struck me as directly contradictory to the command of the Savior that we “not appear to others to be fasting” (Matthew 6:18).

We have all heard homilies attempting to reconcile our practice with Jesus’ words, but all of these attempts have failed. The main reason given for our practice is so that we might be a sign of contradiction to the world by bearing the ashes on our foreheads, and this is true as far as it goes, but it still stands in stark contrast to Jesus’ words.

The use of ashes on Ash Wednesday began in Germany “in the tenth century; it spread to Italy and finally to Rome in the twelfth century. It was only in the thirteenth century that the papal liturgy used ashes with the pope himself submitting to the rite.”[1] The use of ashes as a sign of repentance from sin goes back, of course, much further than 1,100 years ago. It is a common practice we find throughout the Old Testament. For example, in the First Book of Maccabees we read, “That day they fasted and wore sackcloth; they sprinkled ashes on their heads and tore their garments” (I Maccabees 3:47). This year we have the opportunity to imitate those who went before us so very long ago.

We are accustomed to the priest blessing the ashes and they saying to each individual one of two admonitions – either, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel,” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” - before tracing the ashes upon our foreheads in the sign of the Cross. This year, however, will be different. The Holy See, in response to the conditions of the coronavirus pandemic, has directed that the priest is to say one of the admonitions to everyone at the same time and then to impose ashes not on the forehead, but on top of the head without saying anything.[2]

As you come forward to receive ashes, I would ask that you bow your head as a sign of repentance. This will also help me be reach the top of the heads of some of you who are taller than me.

This will look and feel differently for you and for me, but we can use this change to our usual practice to better focus on what Lent is all about: an interior change of heart through an acknowledgement of our sins and repentance from them so that the Lord may give us back the joy of salvation (cf. Psalm 51:14). Amen.

[1] Days of the Lord: The Liturgical Year, Vol. 2: Lent (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1993), 13.

[2] Cf. Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, “Note on Ash Wednesday Distribution of Ashes in Time of Pandemic,” 12 January 2021.

14 February 2021

Homily - 14 February 2021 - The Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Dear brothers and sisters,

Beginning this Ash Wednesday, there will be a slight correction to the English translation of the Holy Mass, one that you may or may not really notice. I call it a slight correction because it consists in the deletion of one word, but a word that occurs again and again in our current translation. This alteration to our translation comes at the direction of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, under the authority of the Holy Father Pope Francis.

The adjustment will be made to the final line of the Collect, the prayer at the beginning of the Mass which collects all of our individual prayers together and presents them as one to the Father. The change will be made because our current English translation of the Latin text of the Mass is – frankly – incorrect. In fact, our current English translation adds a word that simply is not found in the Latin. That word is the word “one.”

Presently, we conclude the Collect with the doxology: “Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.” Starting this Wednesday, the doxology will end, “…God for ever and ever. Amen.” This change will be made to prayers not only within the Mass, but wherever else these words are found.

Now, some of you might be wondering why this change was not made a few years ago when the translation of the Holy Mass was revised. It was suggested at the time, but for one reason or another the Holy See advised against it.

Others of you might be wondering what the fuss is about. There is an ancient maxim in the Church which says, lex orandi, lex credenda, that is, “the law of praying is the law of believing.”

These words are not merely convenient modes of advancing the liturgical action, placed by the Church in the liturgy to give form to our immediate intentions of worship. They do of course achieve that purpose, but their meaning extends far beyond their immediate use. These words are taken from and express the faith of the Church; when they are prayed, they become formative, instructive, and foundational for our life of faith. The words we hear and speak when we pray in the liturgy also have the effect of forming our belief, enabling us to understand better the faith that Christ gives us through the Church. Recited again and again, these words obtain both place and meaning in the mind and the heart of the believer.[1]

This is an important reminder that “the Church’s faith precedes the faith of the believer who is invited to adhere to it.”[2] The words we use in our prayer are important – especially in our public prayer – because “the Church believes as she prays.”[3]

With the insertion of the word “one,” the impression may have been given that the words “God for ever and ever” referred generally to the Holy Trinity. However, the phrase actually refers back to Jesus Christ who is “God for ever and ever.” This change in our translation brings into focus “the importance of affirming this Christological truth amid the religious pluralism of today’s world,” that more than being a good teacher Jesus is God (cf. Luke 7:16).[4] It is this same Jesus, this same God, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, to whom we turn in time of trouble and who fills us with the joy of salvation (cf. Psalm 32:7).

Some might question why the Church is worrying about this now when there are so many other issues which need to be addressed. While this is true as far as it goes, “praying correctly – professing accurately our belief about Christ and the Trinity – in no way distracts from these important tasks. Rather, as our relationship with God becomes stronger, we are better able to address the world.”[5]

Turning to the Gospel chosen for today’s Mass, we see this truth about Jesus wondrously displayed. The leper approached Jesus in great humility, symbolized by his kneeling down before him, and said, “If you wish, you can make me clean” (Mark 1:41). The leper does not tell Jesus what to do; he does not even really make a request of Jesus. Rather, he simply declares what Jesus can do; he acknowledges that Jesus has the power to make him clean not because he is a moral authority, but because he knows Jesus is God (cf. Mark 1:40-41). So great is his faith that he simply trusts in Jesus’ compassion and goodness!

Without a doubt, Jesus could have healed the leper with just a word of command, but he did something more: he reached out and touched him (cf. Mark 1:41).

That gesture and those words of Christ contain the whole history of salvation, they embody God’s will to heal us, to purify us from the illness that disfigures us and ruins our relationships. In that contact between Jesus’ hand and the leper, every barrier between God and human impurity, between the Sacred and its opposite, was pulled down. This was not of course in order to deny evil and its negative power, but to demonstrate that God’s love is stronger than all illness, even in its most contagious and horrible form. Jesus took upon himself our infirmities, he made himself “a leper” so that we might be cleansed.[6]

Will we imitate that leper and in the infirmity of our sin say to Jesus, “If you wish, you can make me clean?” To do so we must humbly acknowledge our sinfulness to him, to him who is not just a prophet but God. May we never lose sight that while Christ Jesus is fully human, he is also fully God. Amen.

[1] Gregory J. Polan, O.S.B., “Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi: The Communion of Faith in the Life of the Church,” 1-2.

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1124.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Committee on Divine Worship of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Note on a change to the translation of Collect prayers, 4 February 2021.

[5] Christopher Carstens, in Joseph O’Brien, “Here’s the Key Reason Why the Mass is Being Changed This Ash Wednesday,” National Catholic Register, 13 February 2021.

[6] Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus Address, 12 February 2012.