Ash Wednesday 2024

15 February 2024

Appears in: Messages and Homilies

Ash Wednesday 2024


[Joel 2:12-18; Psalm 51; 2Corinthians 5:20-6:2; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18]

We enter this holy season of Lent aware of our need for God’s forgiveness and confident in His never-failing mercy. This penitential journey of forty days is a privileged time to examine our lives thoroughly and honestly, so that we can speak to Jesus the truth of our sin even as we hold on to the truth of his love. At the outset of this Lenten path, we hear Jesus in tonight’s passage from Saint Matthew speak to us a word that we can receive with great benefit for our self-examination. Spoken in love, as is everything Jesus says, it is nevertheless a very harsh word, one we would perhaps rather not contemplate. 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, doing 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 when the teachings of the Church are not popular, and it is 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, “Turn away from sin, and be faithful to the Gospel”, while 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, any acting – indeed, any 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.

Most Reverend Richard W. Smith

Saint Joseph Basilica, February 14th, 2024