Joel 2, 12-18 + Psalm 51 + 2 Corinthians 5: 2—6,2 + Matthew 6,1-6, 16-18
26 February 2020 At St. Peter and St. William Churches in Naples, FL
There is some kind of rule we have all heard about that instructs us not to talk about politics or religion at a party or over dinner. As a frequent guest at the table of many friends. I find it curious that in the last eight or ten years, no one talks about politics over supper. In fact, no one talks about politics anywhere except to trusted friends who think and feel the way we do, and we are careful to sort out those who agree with us. Of course, inviting a priest to dinner does mean that some passing item in the news or some trivial question about religious customs might come up, but it’s always in passing, and never about anything troubling or challenging. If an issue about religion might even possibly cross over into politics, someone will politely and quickly change the subject. I find it a little odd that topics and issues so important to our lives together have suddenly become private matters that no one will talk about openly. It’s a little risky to ask someone if they are Independent, Democrat or Republican. But then, why ask? Anyone who really watches and listens to someone closely and pays attention to what they say or think is important could probably figure that out.
It’s all a part of some new kind of privatization that has taken hold of us. This whole age of “Me first” is part of it. This whole way of thinking that my rights supersede your rights, and I can say anything I want to no matter how it might offend you is part of it. If you take offence, there must be something wrong with you. It can’t have anything to do with me, because I have a right to say and do anything if I feel like it. The consequence of this is just pushing us further and further from one another, tearing up loving families, and ruining wonderful relationships that once were light hearted, fun, and life-giving.
We are about to do something that breaks that rule I mentioned a minute ago. We are going to publicly mark ourselves as sinners, and we’re going to go public about it. After Mass, if you go to the grocery, the bank, or anywhere else, people are going to see you and know something about you. Best of all, I hope and pray, you will see others marked in the same way. These ashes on our forehead – it’s no private matter. Neither is sin. The secret, or the taboo about private religion will be revealed. In a very real sense, the biggest secrets of our lives are going to become public. People will know. They will know you went to church on a Wednesday. The smart and the wise will know that in spite of all our efforts to cover it up and look good, we have sinned., and when you see another with the mark of sin on their face, you’ll know that you are not the only one, and that you are part of a people who are not afraid to admit it and are now committed to doing something about it.
This is a public act, not something we do alone or in secret. In a world where no one seems able to accept and claim responsibility for what they have done or not done, this is unique! It is a public act that announces to anyone who looks at us that we know we are sinners, and we accept the responsibility for our actions and for what we have failed to do. On top of that, we have set ourselves on a forty-day program to right some of the wrong, to change what we have done and do something better. This is not about giving up chocolates, deserts, movies, or pop-corn. This is about sin and getting it out of our lives. It is about confronting that “”me-first” attitude that looks at others as though there here to serve us. It is about confronting and stopping whatever pushes us away from others and therefore from God.
Take these ashes today, and take responsibility for what you have done. I will. Then, do something about it so that it does not continue, so that sin is no longer so powerful, and that finally the unity and peace that God so desires for us will be within reach.