13 February 2024

Homily - 14 February 2024 - Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday

Dear brothers and sisters,

Much like Saint Valentine’s Day, we might say Ash Wednesday is a day about love. It might seem strange to say so, given that February 14th has largely become associated with romantic notions of love, and that on Ash Wednesday Mother Church calls us to “take up battle with spiritual evils.”[1] The only way to truly battle against spiritual evils is to do so with the love of God, by growing deeper in his love and spreading his love more authentically. Today, then, is an opportunity for us to consider the nature of love, which is, perhaps, why Saint Paul exhorts us “not to receive the grace of God in vain” (II Corinthians 6:1). There is much to unpack in these few words, much that concerns love.

If we are to heed the Apostle’s warning, we must first know what he means by grace. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that “grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and eternal life.”[2] To put it perhaps more simply,

God’s grace denotes his gift of love, the love made known most dramatically in the sending of his Son (cf. John 3:16) and in the gift of the Spirit in our hearts (cf. Romans 5:5). Grace thus signifies that God holds nothing back in reaching out to us in love.[3]

Yet despite this gift of grace we all too often fail to reach out in love to God.

Saint Valentine, a priest in the city of Rome, realized the tremendous gift we received in Christ and he devoted his life to helping others realize the same; he sought to help them live in grace. When Roman soldiers were forbidden to enter into marriage, he witnessed their marriages anyway, because he wanted to be sure husbands and wives received the grace needed from God to keep the promises of their marriages and so reflect God’s love for the Church. When he refused to stop witnessing the marriages of soldiers, he was beheaded, so it is that the color of Saint Valentine’s Day is red; it calls to mind the blood of this martyr, shed in and for the love of God and neighbor.

Detail, Saint Valentine blesses a couple, 15th cent. woodcut

Valentine heard Saint Paul’s admonition and did not receive the grace of God in vain; he lived in the love of God and helped others to encounter his love. Valentine allowed the grace of God to bear fruit in his life; he fought against spiritual evils and, in the end, saved his life for eternity.

Saint Augustine of Hippo at first resisted God’s gift of grace and so received it in vain, yet one day he yielded to God’s grace. His interior longing for God prevailed and he exposed his heart to grace saying that famously moving prayer: “You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”[4]

Each of us also received this grace of God’s love, a share in the divine life, in the waters of Baptism, but it is a grace to which we must respond again and again if we do not wish to lose it; it is a love we sometimes resist, but must instead surrender to. This is why the Lord says to us through his prophet Joel, “return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God” (Joel 2:12-13). In other words, let your repentance be internal and sincere, and not merely external and showy.

By giving his life for the sake of others, Saint Valentine imitated the Lord Jesus and so we see the life of Christ reflected in his martyrdom. By devoting his life to his portion of the Lord’s flock, Saint Augustine imitated the Lord and so we see the life of Christ reflected in his teachings. In a similar way, husbands and wives are to live for each other, not for themselves, and so imitate the selflessness of the love of Christ. “What does it mean,” then, “to receive the grace of God in vain except to be unwilling to perform good works with the help of his grace?”[5] Indeed, we see Saint “Paul’s exhortation not to receive God’s grace in vain is an appeal to deeper conversion, that is, to avoid becoming partners with evil and to continue to purify [ourselves] in mind and body.”[6] This is what today is all about.

We have come before the Lord because we know we have not always kept ourselves pure in mind and body and have not always lived in his love. We have received the grace of God in vain. We have failed to love both God and neighbor and we have not always allowed the Lord to reflect his love through us. We have heard the Lord’s call to “proclaim a fast” and to “call an assembly,” and so we cry out to him, “Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned” (Joel 2:15; cf. Psalm 51:3).

The ancient symbol of Saint Augustine is a heart on fire and pierced with arrows. The heart symbolizes his restless longing for God; the fire his burning love for God and neighbor; and the arrows the many times he was pierced by God’s grace, pierced by God’s love. The restlessness of his heart and his encounters with God’s grace taught him, as he said, that “nothing cleanses the heart but the undivided and single-minded striving after eternal life…”[7]

In these coming days of Lent, let each of us follow his example and strive after eternal life with undivided hearts. With Saint Augustine, let us not shield our hearts from the Lord, but hold them up to him. Let us expose our hearts to be pierced by his grace and set afire with the love of God and neighbor. If we do, the Father will reward us and give us back the joy of salvation, the joy of love, the satisfaction of a life lived in imitation of the Lord (Matthew 6:4; Psalm 51:14). Amen.

[1] Collect of the Mass for Ash Wednesday.

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1996.

[3] Thomas D. Stegman, Catholic Commentary of Sacred Scripture: Second Corinthians (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2009), 191.

[4] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, 1.1. Henry Chadwick, trans., Oxford World’s Classics: Confessions: A New Translation by Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 3.

[5] Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 126.5. In Thomas C. Oden, et al, eds., 251.

[6] Thomas D. Stegman, Catholic Commentary of Sacred Scripture: Second Corinthians, 148.

[7] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Sermon on the Mount, 2.3.11. In Thomas C. Oden, et al, eds., 128.

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