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Ash Wednesday 2019

St. Joseph Basilica, Edmonton

6 March 2019

We enter once again into the holy season of Lent. We come, deeply aware of our need for forgiveness, to turn our lives away from our sins, away from our infidelities and back to God who loves us and who stands always ready to receive, to embrace and to forgive us. We give external expression to our interior desire to repent and receive forgiveness by having ourselves marked with the sign of ashes.

As we undertake this penitential journey of forty days, let’s begin by considering a word that Jesus uses in the Gospel passage we’ve just heard. It is a very hard word, and, in fact, he uses it often. The word is hypocrite. “When you give alms, pray and fast, don’t do these practices like the hypocrites do, seeking to draw attention to yourself.” Your one concern, Jesus is saying, is to give glory to God not to yourself.

The word hypocrite is the English translation of the Greek word for actor or pretender. Actors on stage have the spotlight turned on them and repeat lines that they hope will please the audience. What Jesus is criticizing is the tendency to act or pretend in life, put forward an outward appearance and pretend to be something that one is not in order hopefully to win the admiration of others. So, right from the outset of Lent, Jesus is putting to us a very tough and bracing question concerning our authenticity as his followers. When it comes to my Christian identity, am I in fact a hypocrite, an actor, a pretender?

I can be a Christian actor by assuming a mask of holiness and do all the external things Christians do – going to mass, celebrating the sacraments, giving money to the poor and so on – yet in my heart be far from God – no daily prayer or private reading of Scripture, secret sinful behaviour, bearing hatred in my heart etc. Or I can also be an actor, a hypocrite, by pretending not to be a believer when in fact I am. This happens when I am afraid to self-identify as a Catholic for fear of being mocked or marginalized because our teachings are not popular and it so much easier to go along to get along.

What the Lord wants from each of us is integrity, by which the words of our mouth reflect accurately the sentiments of our hearts, by which our external actions cohere with our inward commitment to Christ. Only in this way can we be ambassadors for Christ, as St. Paul puts it. Only by a life of integrity can we give effective witness before others to the truth and beauty of the Gospel.

In a few moments we will hear the words “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” when ashes are placed on our foreheads. As we make this outward sign of repentance, let us ask the Lord to heal us of any pretense, acting - indeed, of hypocrisy – in our lives as his followers, so that the inner and outer expressions of our faith will unite to give glory to our Father who sees all and who will reward us.

✠ Richard W. Smith
    Archbishop of Edmonton

St. Joseph’s Basilica
March 6, 2019