17 February 2010
Homily Notes of Most Rev Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop of Dublin, Primate of Ireland
At the time of Jesus things were not much different. It was already the custom to announce any generous donation in the Synagogue or even at a special gathering in the streets. The same applied to praying. The tradition at the time was to recite long prayers at particular times and there was a certain admiration of those who knew these long prayers by heart and could recite them at a minute’s notice wherever they might find themselves, best of all on the public street. The same applied to fasting, where the announcement of one’s goodness through fasting was confirmed by looking as miserable as one could and thus feeling good.
Jesus does not lift the obligation to pray or to fast or to be generous. What he does is to tell people that they are not to pray or fast or be generous in an ostentatious or self proclaiming way. We are to pray in the privacy of your own room with the door closed. Fasting is to be done without a long face but a bright, fresh and clean smile that no one will surmise that you are fasting. Generosity is to serve the needs of others and not our need of praise.
In today’s world we use the term authenticity about the manner in which we integrate true values in our lives. How are we to be authentic Christians?
The first thing we have to do is to recognise the action of God himself in our lives. If we authentically recognise the lordship of God then we are challenged to look in a different way at life, at relationships with others, and with the gifts of creation. If God is Lord, then our attitude to his creation must inevitably be different. We will be challenged to recognise that the creation God has given us is destined for the good of all and that the harmony within nature is damaged by the selfishness of individuals and by the way we life, through our actions, our deliberate omissions or indeed by simply letting things happen.
The gifts of creation are given for the benefit of all. Those gifts of creation are clearly to be seen in the beauty and the interconnectedness of the diversity that is within nature. But the gifts of creation include also human genius and creativity. The fruits of human genius are also destined fundamentally for the good of all and great divisions in our world regarding access to food, health care and knowledge are also indications of how the selfishness of some has displaced the original design of God.
Prayer means simply placing one life is the presence of God and recognising his Lordship and how that affects our way of living. The recognition of the transcendence of God challenges all the values of the world in which we live and reminds us that there are values which transcend the day to day.
Ash Wednesday is a unique day in which within the Catholic tradition we are called to reflect on where we stand in our own lives and on what our value system is. Lenten penance is not a punitive activity; it is not a form of religious masochism in the sense that we fell good through punishing some aspect of our lives.
That is not the Christian way of life. There is, however, a sense in which we can only attain authenticity through an inevitably painful path of renunciation of what is non-essential. It means renouncing any tendency to live if the purpose of life was just our own fulfilment and our own rights and our own image.
But the real reason why we should avoid any ostentation in our prayer and spirituality and fasting and generosity is because of the very nature of God. Where do we look to understand God? The path is to be found in the way God revealed himself, namely in the life and actions of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ path of caring and healing and sustaining is not just an encouragement to us to live in a similar way. Jesus’ path of caring and healing and sustaining is a revelation of who God is.
God is above all the faithful one, who throughout human history responds to the infidelity of his people and their leaders by being faithful.
“Repent and believe the Gospel” is one of the formulas used on the occasion of imposing Ashes. It is an appeal to each of you, to identify where you have drifted away from authenticity in faith – very often almost without knowing it – into being above all self-seeking.
“Repent and believe the Gospel” is a call to the members, the structures and the leaders of the Church who have also in many ways been unfaithful to their calling and have allowed personal and institutional reputation to influence their decisions.
We all have to repent; we are all called to turn back to what is authentic in the faith so that we can be more authentic in our lives. The touchstone for measuring our repentance will be our belief in the Gospel. There is no way in which we can think that we know God without knowing the Jesus that is revealed in the Gospel. That is why I have prepared a special edition of Saint Luke’s Gospel for wide distribution. I challenge each of you here today to repent. That means taking up the Gospel and getting to know Jesus as he presents himself to us through his life, words and action, gathered in a systematic way in the Gospels. I challenge each of you to take up the Gosple of Saint Luke, in the privacy of your heart, and come to know the liberating message of Jesus.
Getting to know that Jesus can change your life and lead you on a path to that real authenticity that each you and also myself must seek. Getting to know the Jesus of the Gospels is also the challenge needed for renewal of the Church. The Church today perhaps more than at other times has itself to respond to the same call: “Repent and believe the Gospel”