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The message of Ash Wednesday

February 23, 2017
Brother John M. Samaha, SM

What is the message of Ash Wednesday? What does the Liturgy of the Word for Ash Wednesday say to you about Lent and following Christ?

The key word for this day, proclaimed to us by the prophet Joel, is “turn.” Joel has the Lord telling us “return to me with your whole heart” (Joel 2:12). How? With prayer, fasting and almsgiving. The intended essential turning is inward. “Rend your hearts, not your clothing” (Joel 2:13). Those who fast, pray, and give alms only to be seen by others turn not to God but to human recognition and acclaim. The reward they seek is the reward they receive. Those who turn to God give without letting the left hand see the right, they allow God to measure the recompense: “Your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:6).

The mystery is this: Integrity cannot be bought. It is gift. Turn to him, Joel counsels, and perhaps he will “leave a blessing behind him” (Joel 2:14). Humans who turn unselfishly hope to meet God’s free turning in blessing. It is characteristic of our gracious and merciful God to relent, to turn, to forgive, to bless.

The turning of God is always a surprise, always out of proportion to the gift of the rent heart. God’s people turn in prayer and fasting and almsgiving. God turns with the gift of life. At the climax of his turning, God made his son to be like us that he might turn us to be the very holiness of God. The Son of God turned to take our nature that we, who did not know holiness, might live by his life. We are a new creation, reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. Now the ministry to that gift has been entrusted to us through baptism. We are ambassadors for Christ, envoys of reconciliation. In Christ Jesus God has turned to us that we might turn to each other and all together return to him.

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