25 February 2009
Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin’s homily notes for Ash Wednesday Mass
Ashes have a varied symbolism. They symbolise death, they symbolise repentance, they symbolise a darker, destructive side to human existence and interaction.
Lent is a time of repentance and renewal, of preparation for the celebration of the mystery of Easter and the mystery of God’s love which led Jesus Christ to accept death and through his self- giving to rise to new life.
We recognise our sinfulness and we ask forgiveness so that we can be free from self-centredness and construct our lives of the model of God’s self giving love.
Ashes have a varied symbolism. They symbolise death, they symbolise repentance, they symbolise a darker, destructive side to our existence. The blessing and imposition of Ashes on the first day of Lent in the Roman Church, is one of the rites of the Church which continues, in the midst of many tendencies towards secularisation, to strike and attract people. A friend of mine was Parish Priest in the Parish of Saint Peter’s in Manhattan, the Catholic Parish of Wall Street, and he tells me that Ash Wednesday was the busiest day of the year. The chaplains here in UCD, I imagine, do not always have as many young people attending weekday Mass as they have today.
What is it about Ash Wednesday? Is it a true religious experience, it is it superstition, is it a remnant of something we learned in our families, is it somehow about a fundamental need we all have of purification?
I said that one of the things symbolised by ashes is the darker, destructive side of human existence. Alongside the many elements of goodness in each one of us, there are also elements which are destructive, destructive of our own integrity, destructive of the way we establish and maintain relationships, destructive of the manner in which we contribute to shape the society in which we live.
The ambiguity that is in our own hearts is transposed then into the type of society we construct. The current concern about the level of unacceptable behaviour in the financial world is just one example of how individual, personal behaviour which is fundamentally immoral can then lead to an interaction in which the behaviour of wider sectors of society become destructive, and if not discovered and tackled in time can lead to a seriously destructive effect on the fabric of society.
It is not my intention to take on the role of social commentator or critic. I would not want to use this situation to be opportunistic and propose simplistically that had all these people listened to the message of the Church they and we would not have found themselves in the current situation.
Even less would I say in a facile way that the current economic crisis provides an opportunity for the Church. I do not like the: “a little bit of recession is good for the soul” argument. The tragic thing is that those who lived well in times of prosperity will live reasonably well in times of recession and those who were poor or in a position of precariousness will pay the terrible price of becoming poorer or finding themselves in an even more precarious situation.
Lent which begins today and the symbol of the Ashes we use will only be effective when each of us addresses the fact of the darker and destructive side of each of our lives and we use the instruments of Lent, prayer, penance and works of charity, not simply to purge or detoxify ourselves, but to open ourselves to who we really are and to reflect on how we can overcome destructive behaviour through a genuine reintegration of our lives, through a more rigorous search for the goodness which is present within us and how our lives can be changed by opening ourselves to God’s love.
It is a matter of assessing our lives and having the courage to pursue coherently a path that is counter-cultural, just as the coming of Jesus demanded that his hearers be counter-cultural in their understanding of who God is. The God of power and might chose to reveal himself not through dramatic gestures played up by publicity and spin. Yes it is true that, as we heard in the recent Sunday Gospels, that “everyone was looking for him”, but in Saint Mark’s Gosple Jesus constantly tries to play down his miraculous gestures, telling people not to speak about them, imposing silence of the evil spirits who knew his identity.
Jesus knew that there is no way in which imposing his identity on anyone would lead them to truly understand who he was. Human conviction can never be imposed. The identity and mission of Jesus has to be gleaned through watching his mission, through interpreting it, and then through a process of personal identification with that challenge that Jesus brings, that of a God who was born into this world in utter humility and who ended his earthly life as a condemned criminal.
This can only be understood by the counter cultural rejection of the classic symbols of power and prosperity and following a path of life based on self-giving love as Jesus did.
Lent gives us an opportunity to nourish that counter cultural tradition. We can do that in our personal life and I hope that each one of you will do so – and indeed that I too allow myself to be shaken up by Christ’s witness. But it must also be done in the manner in which we address our ambition and our professional preparation. The destructive elements that appear in our society and our economy are the fruits of the false paths trodden by individuals which then have contributed to the creation of what Pope John Paul called “structures of sin”, which then take on almost a life of their own.
Let Lent be a moment in which each of us looks at the values which govern our lives today and the values which we would wish to see incarnated into the world, the society and the economy of tomorrow. There is no doubt that those values will be counter-cultural and to be counter-cultural requires integrity and courage. But the opposite to being counter-cultural is being conformist, and being conformist can quickly lead to being complacent and loosing the sharpness and critical sense which should come from our faith. Lent offers the opportunity through prayer, penance and works of mercy to take away the mask that we create around ourselves and to walk the path of integrity and courage.