A Phoenix out of Our Ashes
Homily for Ash Wednesday
Preached on February 13, 2013 at Saint Andrew Catholic Church, Harrodsburg KY and Saint Mary Catholic Church, Perryville KY
Readings: Joel 2:12-18; Psalm 51:3-4, 5-6ab, 12-13, 14, 17; 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
There is an image of a bird on fire in the stained glass windows of Saint Andrew’s Daily Mass Chapel. It is the image of a phoenix, a fabled fowl that rose to new life from its own ashes. It is also for us Christians a symbol for the Risen Christ, a sign of His Resurrection, of the new and eternal life that emerged from His suffering and death.
That image of a fiery bird is our reminder today of where we are headed to in our Lenten journey. We begin this period of penance with Ash Wednesday, by remembering that we are but dust and to dust we shall all return (cf. Gen. 3:19). The ashes that we wear this day are the visible signs of our call to be consumed by a fiery love for God these forty days. The little things that we shall give up or give away are meant to build up within us the resolve to surrender ourselves more to His Providence until the whole of our lives becomes a burnt offering to Him. There is always the fear of getting burned or being burnt out that gets in the way of giving ourselves up completely to God. We tend to think that when we have given up everything, because we are left with nothing, that we ourselves become nothing. Yet, it is when we acknowledge ourselves to be nothing that God makes something out of us; it is when are reduced to ashes that He raises a phoenix out of our remains.
This holy season is an invitation to burn with a love for God such that the very dust of our existence becomes the soil where He will plant a clean heart and renew a steadfast spirit (Ps. 51:12). But, that can only happen once we have humbled our humanity before Him. Both the words humility and humanity can be traced back to the Latin word humus: the word for earth, for ground, for dirt. To be humble then is to remember exactly what we are as humans: that we are dust and to dust we shall return (Gen. 3:19). It is when we acknowledge that we are but dirt that God begins to cultivate in us His garden of goodness.
In today’s Gospel, our Lord Jesus offers to humanity three specific paths of humility: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. He also warns us not to pursue any of these so that we might have something to pride ourselves in (cf. Mt. 6:1). In doing so, He leads us to the very heart of sacrifice: it is to give without counting the cost; it is to give without pursuing a profit. He teaches us to pray without demanding attention (cf. Mt. 6:5-6), to give without seeking recognition (cf. Mt. 6:1-4), to give up pleasures without expecting a reward (cf. Mt. 6:16-18). The Lord asks us to make this Lent and the rest of our lives to be not about us but to be all about Him. He invites us to reduce our egos to ashes so that all that will remain in us on Easter morning will be His image and likeness.
Our journey begins with the ashes of this Wednesday. May it culminate with God’s grace to years of faith as fiery as that blazing bird of legend.