Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s Homily for Ash Wednesday

22 Feb 2012

Homily of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin for Ash Wednesday, University College Dublin

The liturgical Rite of Ash Wednesday gives two formulae for the imposition of Ashes.  One is the classical formula: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”.  It is a reminder of the fragility of human life.  It reminds us that there are things we came into this world without and without which we will leave this world and so we are challenged to reflect on what our life means and to put aside the superficial and the glib and seek what it means to be truly human.

The other formula is “Repent and believe the Good News”. The term repentance finds it hard to carve out its place in our contemporary vocabulary.  It is not something ritualistic.  It is about a change in life, a turning round.  Repentance is also about returning to what is essential in human life and not putting our trust in a self-made comfort-zone which in the long term turns out just disillusionment and emptiness.

This appeal for conversion, for a genuine return to God, dominates today’s liturgy.   The first reading calls us to: “Come back to [God] with all your heart”.  The Prophet Joel urges us to return to the Father “with your whole heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning…. For he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment” (2: 12-13).

The Responsorial Psalm asks the Lord to create within us “a clean heart” and to renew in us “a right spirit”.  In the Gospel reading Jesus warns us against a vanity which only leads to ostentation and hypocrisy, to superficiality and self-satisfaction.  The Gospel reasserts the need to foster uprightness of heart.   Repentance is not just about a life marked by fasting, weeping and mourning:  it is about discerning what integrity and uprightness of heart really mean.

Lent in the history of the Church is the time when those who have come to the faith for the first time undergo a catechumenate in order to be baptised at Easter.  There also a sense in which Lent is such a time for all of us.  It is a time to reflect on our lives and on the faith into which we were baptised.

Lent is popularly remembered as a time when we take on fasting or penance and dedicate what we save to some good work.  In the tradition of the Church Lent is a time of fasting and prayer and works of charity. But these are in a certain sense just the instruments which the Church proposes to attain the real purpose of Lent, namely, to attain uprightness and integrity in our own hearts through a coming back to God.   The principal architect of our Lenten practice is not us, but God himself.

This repentance and this turning back to God is not an easy one.  It is certainly not an easy one for the young men and women of your generation who live in a culture in which God is mentioned less and less.  Where do I go to find God?  How can I reconcile in my life what goes on day by day and a God who seems to be in another compartment.  There is a radio programme called: “The God Slot”.  I think that we are all tempted, even those who unhesitatingly believe in God, to keep God in “the God Slot” and to turn to him on occasional moments but moments perhaps that are more and more rare.

Where does the young man or women of your generation begin to find God?  How do you move from the image of God of your childhood to an adult faith which touches who you are and what you do?   I would not be honest if I did not also ask you and ask myself, do you find God in the Church or do you rather find the Church a hindrance to finding God?

The first thing that I would say is that you can only find the path of return to God through asking the right questions.  These questions are not first of all about God, but about you yourself.   They are the deeper questions about what it means to be a person, about why am I here, what does human freedom mean?  What can I do with my life and what should I do with my life?  The answer is more than a question of what job or profession I am interested in.

The more we reflect on human freedom and on ultimate truth the more we will have to face a sort of contradiction:  our search for the meaning of our humanity inevitably leads us beyond that humanity, towards something new, towards transcendence, towards a mystery. Our search for the meaning of our humanity must lead us at least to confront ourselves about the question of the transcendent.   There is a sense that all our attempts to define ourselves in terms of our own self-sufficiency, will eventually lead us to see that that self-sufficiency needs something other, something which takes us outside and above our own limited capacities.

How do we answer?  There is the inevitable temptation to create our own absolutes.  Some will create an absolute of unbelief.  Others will create a god of our own making.  But such a god would curiously lead us to the same conclusion as the absolute of unbelief:   a God of our own creation will inevitably lead us to end up only where we started: with ourselves.

The God revealed to us in Jesus Christ is not a God that we create, but gratuitous gift. Being fully human means accepting that gift and recognising yes our dependence on an absolute beyond ourselves, but that absolute is person, Jesus Christ, who gratuitously shows us how to be ourselves and wishes us to be fully ourselves. Lent is a moment in which we use the instruments of prayer, penance and work of charity to purify our self perception in order to be more fully ourselves.

These are complex questions and I would love to be able to enter into dialogue with you on some other occasion about what they mean for you and for the Church.  I would be less than honest not to recognise that that dialogue between your generation and the Church is not working well.  The Church needs change and renewal, but that renewal is not about outwards structures or the banalities or externalities of the day.  I cannot help thinking that there is something askew when even Catholic media become so preoccupied about “Vatican Embassy yes or no”, while, as it were, “Rome burns”, while the real crisis questions about the Church and about faith are not being addressed.

I encourage you to use Lent to develop for yourself and your life that real reflection on what the Christian faith is and remain open to the call to come back to that God who will create within you a clean hear and a right spirit.

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