Ash Wednesday 2023
[Joel 2:12-18; Psalm 51; 2Corinthians 5:20-6:2; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18]
During the boarding process of a recent flight, a little girl of about four years of age passed my seat and cried out to everyone within earshot on the plane: “I can’t wait to get back to Edmonton!” Apparently, she had been away from home for a little while, and whatever or whomever it was she was looking forward to seeing, she “couldn’t wait” to get back. I also had the impression that mom, who was right behind her, was not entirely of the same view and would have liked a bit more time away, but for her little daughter there was no question: the time to get back home was now.
Saint Paul would be in full agreement with her. In the biblical text of the second reading, we hear him also cry out to anyone within hearing that the time to get back home is now. The word he uses for this “homecoming” is reconciliation. When he summons us to be reconciled to God, he is calling us to return home to our Lord. God is home; God is where we belong. Sin is estrangement, a wandering far away from home, from God. Reconciliation involves turning around, making the journey back, and settling once again into that place, which is most “home” to every human being – a relationship of faith, hope and love with God, a life in God.
Let’s not miss the urgency in Saint Paul’s cry. When the little girl said she “couldn’t wait”, she was simply giving voice to excitement and anticipation. Paul is speaking literally. He is telling us that, when we have distanced ourselves from God through sin, we cannot wait – we must not wait – to turn back. To be away from God is no vacation that, like the mother, we might want to prolong a little while. Sinful estrangement from God is dangerous. It is based on the prideful presumption that we can live self-sufficiently, trusting in our own capacities and merits. Apart from God, however, we cannot live rightly, and will quickly find ourselves lost and in no end of pain or difficulty. This is why Paul is, in effect, telling us that we “cannot wait” to get home. The time for reconciliation is now.
Notice, too, that, Paul speaks of himself as an ambassador as he says these things. Ambassadors speak for, and on behalf of, the one who sends them. In his case, Paul tells us he is speaking for Jesus Christ. In other words, through Paul Jesus himself is calling us to come back home. He is telling us that we cannot wait, because he does not want us to prolong in any way a life apart from him. At the same time, Jesus is telling us that he “cannot wait” for our return, so much does he look forward, with great eagerness, to embracing us with his love and mercy.
So, together, as we enter this holy season of Lent, let us heed carefully and obediently the call of the Lord and set off back home. It’s time. Without delay, let us embrace the penitential practices the Lord Jesus sets out for us in the Gospel: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. In addition to these, we ought not to wait to make a trip to the confessional, especially if we have not done so in a long time. There, in the Sacrament of Penance, the Lord welcomes us home by the liberating grace of forgiveness.
As we come forward now to receive the mark of ashes on our foreheads, may these be for us all a sign that we just “can’t wait” to get back home to our loving God.
Most Reverend Richard W. Smith
Saint Joseph Basilica
February 22nd, 2023