You are a sinner.
You have not loved well.
You haven’t even kept all of the commandments.
You do not deserve heaven.
You deserve hell.
When you die and come before God for your judgment, these are the words with which the devil will accuse you. And, to some extent, the devil is right: we are sinners, we haven’t loved well, we don’t deserve heaven.
The ashes that we are receiving today tell us that. They are ashes, ashes from the palms, palms that we swung about last year as we praised God with our lips, but which have become dry and empty and are now burned. The ashes represent our love: we’ve loved ourselves and our own comfort; we have pursued the things of the world that pass away and become ashes. We’ve chosen ashes. And we have become like them.
They are placed in the very spot where we once received the oil of the Holy Spirit at Confirmation; in the very spot where we, every Sunday at the Gospel, say “Glory to you, O Lord.” The contrast is stark: ashes on the spot of the glory, reminding us that we have gloried not in God; ashes on the spot of the oil, reminding us that we have sacrificed the gifts of the Holy Spirit and His oil of gladness for the ashes of worldly trappings and passing comfort.
I know: this homily does not feel good. We are admitting that we need a Savior.
And so the ashes are signed in the Cross—“in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”—asking God to save us by that same Cross and the One who carried it so as to gain us mercy and eternal life in heaven.
To that prayer for mercy, Jesus gives us answer: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel!”
In other words: if you want to be saved, if you want to be freed from your sins and to go to heaven—if you want that new Life, then you are going to have to turn around and choose differently.
This is the fight. And it’s for our souls.
You’re going to feel that fight when you feel the grumble in your stomach. You’re going to feel the fight when you smell that bacon and the devil is going to say “choose the comfort, it’s not that big of a deal—and don’t you smell the bacon?”
And you are going to have a decision to make. The decision is about who and what you love.
Lent, therefore, is not going to be simply about employing a “self-improvement plan” for us to lose weight or become more efficient in our day-to-day work. Sure, we look to become the “best versions of ourselves,” but that’s not the entire point of Lent. (If you’re looking for a self-improvement plan, go talk to Dr. Phil).
Lent is about loving God again.
It’s about realizing how enslaved we’ve become to things that are not God.
It’s about fighting for love again by entering into the fray of sacrifice and prayer and almsgiving.
It’s about “mourning and weeping” for our sins—and even praying for that gift of tears which we call compunction.
It’s about doing our very best to show God our love … and failing miserably.
Yes, you heard me correctly: Lent is going to be about failing miserably—about you reaching that third week of doing the difficult, of choosing the nails and thorns of love… But then denying Jesus for a few pieces of silver, of comfort, of selfish, selfish self-love.
And in that moment, you’re going to be brought to your knees and you’re going to lift your arms to the heavens and say, “Lord, I cannot do this by myself! Lord, help me! I’m so bad at love!”
And it will be then that you will realize that you can’t get to heaven on your own—even though you have been trying to do it all by yourself. That’s how we have been living, right? Trying to do it all by our self-- All. The. Time.
But you can’t. You need a Savior.
You can’t “create yourself anew” with some “self-improvement” plan.
You need a Savior. And His mercy. And His grace.
Which means that you’re going to have to be humbled and made little. And come to Him saying so. You’re a Peter who denies; a Judas who leaves early; a Thomas who doubts…. A thief on the Cross.
But, Jesus, remember me......
This is Lent. It begins with ashes.
May it end with Jesus looking at you in love and saying, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”