Today in our parishes around the Diocese of Knoxville and the world, after the homily is given, all kinds of people will approach the altar. If years’ past are any indication, there will be people at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass today that we do not see any other day of the year. At my own parish, the Mass of Ash Wednesday is by far the most well-attended liturgy of the year. More people have come to Mass on Ash Wednesday in recent years than have come to any other liturgy of the year, including Christmas or Easter. Part of the reason may be that other ecclesial communities also observe Ash Wednesday, and you don’t have to be Catholic to receive ashes, so some people come to Mass to receive their ashes because they can’t make the service in their own church for whatever reason. For many others, they might have been away from the Church and from the celebration of the sacraments all year and they’ve come on Ash Wednesday because they at least feel the need to acknowledge their own sins and imperfections, since Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent, which is for the Church that time of special focus on penance, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving as we prepare our hearts and minds to commemorate the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Lent is also the time when catechumens (those who will soon be baptized) and candidates (those who were baptized in another Christian tradition but are preparing to be received into the Catholic Church at Easter) will undergo their final preparations, and the whole Church around the world will be actively praying for them. They are called to enter into a spirit of conversion of life that is consistent with their desire to be a part of the Body of Christ, and during Lent the entire Body of Christ joins them in this spirit of conversion.
When people approach the priest, deacon, or extraordinary minister to receive ashes on their foreheads, they will either hear the words “turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel,” or the words of God as accounted in Genesis 3:19, “remember you are dust, and to the dust you shall return.” It is a reminder that we are all sinners, we are all called to a life of conversion, of turning away from sin, and being faithful to the Gospel because we were made from dust and we will return one day to the dust, we will all give an account to the God who made us.
Lent is a season when we are called to ponder not only our sins and shortcomings, but how we can be better children of God and servants of God, it is a time to be open to a radical conversion of heart and of life wherever in our lives that this might need to happen. In the case of both myself and my wife, it is guaranteed that before Lent is over and Easter has come, our lives and our family will radically change as we prepare to embrace our daughter who will be due in mid-March. We are happy, excited, and anxious, but we know that our whole lives will change as this is our firstborn child. It will take the meaning of love, service, sacrifice, and giving to another level in our home, so it is certain that this Lent will be a transformative Lent for us. Our little girl will truly be an Easter gift from God.
You don’t have to be a catechumen or candidate, or expecting your first child during Lent in order to allow for the Holy Spirit to transform you during this holy season of the year. All you have to do is heed the words you hear today when you go to receive ashes: Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. If you’ve been away from the Church for whatever reason, come home to the sacraments, and don’t let it end at the conclusion of Lent. The Lord loves you and he is waiting for you, and he did so much more than meet you where you are, he gave his life in order to bring you back to God (to paraphrase one of the responsories of the Liturgy of the Hours during Holy Week). If you’ve had a bad experience in the Church, whatever it might be, remember that neither the ministers of the Church nor the people in the pew are without sin, and Pope Francis is right, the Church is the spiritual field hospital for sinners.
As the prophet Joel tells us in the first reading today (cf. Joel 2:12-18):
Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, weeping, and mourning. Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God, For he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relenting in punishment.
Today is a good day for all of us to come to the field hospital and begin to allow the Lord to embrace us, forgive us, and heal our souls.