Homily for Ash Wednesday 2023.
One of the great things about being a priest is that every day is different; no day is exactly like the next. Even after three and a half years as a priest, I still have new experiences.
Recently, I went to Costco for the first time. I had never been in one of their stores before, so I didn’t know exactly what to expect. My expectations were rather high, however, because people at my previous parish had always raved about Costco. In fact I sometimes joked that they thought of Costco as the eighth Sacrament.
But what most impressed me as a first-time shopper at Costco, was the size of everything. They say that everything is bigger in Texas; the same thing could be said about Costco. And there’s something about the larger size of everything, and the lower prices as well, that makes you want to buy everything in sight, even if you don’t need it. At least that was my experience.
We all want to be satisfied in life, to have all of our physical needs met, and a place like Costco does a good job promising to fulfill that desire. And when we live our lives, as many of us do, with every one of our physical needs met, we can be unprepared for the experience of being unsatisfied. It can be an experience that we try to avoid at all costs. Any hint of hunger, and we go to the pantry or the fridge for a snack; any moment of loneliness or boredom, and we reach for our phone or turn on the TV.
But the danger of living our lives with all of our needs met, devoid of any experience of unsatisfaction, is that we can forget our need for God and forget that there are other people who are in need. If we never are hungry, we can forget our deeper hunger for God. We can also forget that there are people who hunger on a daily basis, who live from hour to hour and don’t know when or where there next meal will be. A life of satisfaction, devoid of any suffering or sacrifice, is often a very selfish life.
Of the three Lenten practices—prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—practices which Jesus speaks about in our gospel today, the one we most closely associate with Lent is fasting. Hence our conversations about what we are “giving up” for Lent. This emphasis also has a scriptural basis in that it is specifically fasting that the gospels say Jesus was doing during his forty days in the desert. “At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry” (Mt. 4:1-2). This is the first line from our gospel for this Sunday.
The danger with this emphasis on fasting, however, is that we can easily make our fasting about us. We can engage in fasting for the purpose of getting healthy, losing weight, or overcoming an addition or bad habit. These are obviously not bad reasons to fast, but they are not the reason for the Lenten fast. Lenten fasting, in many ways, is meant to be in service of the other two Lenten practices. We fast during Lent in order to detach ourselves from the things of this world, so that we can more readily attach ourselves to God in prayer and more readily give away the things of this world to our neighbor who is in need.
Jesus reminds us in our gospel not to make our good works about ourselves. That’s important to keep in mind as we begin our Lenten fast. We fast, not for ourselves, but for God and others. We might think of God and our neighbor as a powerful magnet. We are a nail, and are meant to be drawn to God and others in love and service. But a nail can get rusty, and when it does, the nail finds the magnet less attractive. What Lenten fasting is meant to do us is like what sandpaper is meant to do to a rusty nail. The sandpaper, in removing the rust, makes the nail sensitive once more to the pull of the magnet. Fasting, if we are doing it right, can feel a bit like having rust cleaned off with rough sandpaper. But, if we are doing it right, we will experience a more powerful pull toward God and neighbor.
As we begin our Lenten fast today with the sign of ashes, let us commit ourselves to some measure of discomfort and unsatisfaction. May our sense of being in need remind us of our ultimate need for God and of the fact that there are others who are in need. May our fasting lead to prayer and almsgiving. Amen.