Ash Wednesday Homily
2 March 2022
Ss. Peter and Paul & Chesterton Academy —
“You are only as sick as your secrets. Jesus, on the cross, with arms outstretched and offering himself for you in love, says: let your secrets go.”
This is the difficult work of believing in Christ Jesus. So few of us really have access to the deepest places of our humanity, and generally this is because we are the ones who have locked those doors ourselves: out of fear of what might be there, or what we know is there, or, sometimes, out of fear of what we know is not there.
A person’s heart, his interiority, is meant to be his sanctuary and his sure refuge in a world consumed by the madness of war and sin. But so many of us – from the oldest to the youngest, from the holiest monk on the mountain to those just arriving at the age of reason – feel condemned by what we find or don’t find in there.
We find so much familiarity in that marvelous song from the band, The Oh Hellos:
I have made mistakes, and continue to make them The promises I’ve made, I continue to break them And all the doubts I’ve faced, I continue to face them.
And oh my heat, how can I face you now?
When we both know how badly I’ve let you down, And I’m afraid of all that I’ve built
“We shall reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” (1 John 3:19-20)
“Peter, do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?” “Lord, you know everything: you know that I love you.”
Peter knows that he is known in both his love and his treason. “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.”
Everyone has hurts in their hearts, and most of the time the secrets that we carry around with us are the source of so much unresolved pain or grief that the very thought of revealing those secrets to our friends or parents, or even to God, is terrifying.
This is the difficult work of believing in Christ Jesus: to sit in silence before our secrets, before the very difficult realities of our human situation, especially before the hurts we have endured and those we have caused. Sitting before these things and believing the lie that because of them we are condemned and without hope is actually very easy.
The truly difficult work of believing in Christ Jesus is the work of looking at everything as it is, all the secrets, all the ways we are tempted to give up God, all the ways our pride or envy or greed or sloth or lust or anger or gluttony has kept us shackled and sad, and to not give in to the voices that say “you are condemned”, “everything is hopeless”, “abandon hope ye who enter here.”
The truly difficult work is to sit before these things and, in utter bewilderment and with seemingly exclusive evidence to the contrary, hear that whisper of Jesus who says: “Come to me all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.” “Let your secrets go.”
Maybe over the course of these 40 days of prayer, penance, and almsgiving you will experience a profound and life-altering encounter with Jesus who loves you, and calls you to himself. But I don’t think this is ultimately the goal of Lent.
Lent is a privileged time, and we have to enter into it with reverence and seriousness. Lent is a gift to us because in some sense it requires us to unlock those little doors inside, and take the big step of peering around inside, so that we might finally be able to go into the most secret places, wherein we have locked away the most secret things, and – again in utter bewilderment – look with a non-distracted and purified vision, and instead of seeing those gnarly secrets, we might be shocked to find the gaze of the Father staring back at us as the darkest places become flooded with light, and he says something like, “Now, let me show you who are, and tell you at what price you have been purchased, and remind whose you are.”
“When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”
“In every believer flows the spring of the new glory. If we take this word seriously, faith is not easy. Everything in and around us contradicts it, often with arguments difficult to refute…We might be asked the embarrassing question, “whether the redeemed shouldn’t look more redeemed?”…The Christian himself must struggle to sustain the promise against his own not- too-convincing personal experience. This is what John means when he says that our true selves are yet hidden – not only to others, but to ourselves. Nevertheless, the intrinsic splendor is there and grows in spite of all weaknesses.” (Romano Guardini)
The old things you have decided to give up, and the new things you have decided to take up; all your acts of penance and prayer; all your charitable acts and almsgiving; all of your sufferings and difficulties of these 40 days are not meant to heal you in themselves. What power do getting
up on time, eating more broccoli, not drinking pop, giving up Instagram, or only allowing 10 minutes a day on Snapchat have to heal you? None. Zero.
The point of it all is quiet you, to settle you, to redirect you; that all the ways we choose ourselves over God might be called out and abandoned; that all the things we do when we’re hiding from God, from each other, and from ourselves might be obliterated absolutely.
And what purpose does this quieting, redirecting, settling, and obliterating serve?
Simply, to reintroduce you to yourself so that you might (and maybe this time once and for all) believe that you are known and that you are loved, and that you are not your mistakes and regrets, and that because of your baptism there is a river of glory already flowing within you, and that you might believe you do have the courage to be open with yourself, your friends, and God and that you might hear – for the first time, even very faintly – the voice of Jesus who says: “you are only as sick as your secrets; let your secrets go.”
“Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart…Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God.”
“We have lived in fear, and our fear has betrayed us;
But we are not alone in the dark with our demons.” (The Oh Hellos, “I Have Made Mistakes”)
And all this so we can say in simplicity, again with that incredible band, the Oh Hellos:
Hello, my old heart
How have you been?
Are you still there inside my chest?
I’ve been so worried, you’ve been so still, barely beating at all.
Hello, my old heart
It’s been so long
Since I’ve given you away
And every day, I add another stone To the walls I built around you
To keep you safe.
Hello, my old heart
How have you been?
How is it, being locked away? Don’t worry, in there you’re safe And it’s true: you’ll never beat, But you’ll never break.
Nothing lasts forever,
Some things aren’t meant to be But you’ll never find the answers Until you set your old heart free Until you set your old heart free.
So rend those hearts, open them to God! Be true with yourself, be true with others. For freedom! For freedom!!
Here is my honest advice for you this Lent, and it is what I will be trying harder than ever before to do:
Remember that in this moment you are as old as you’ve ever been, and you’re as young as you’ll ever be. “I want to ask you…as best I can, to have patience about everything that is still unresolved in your heart; try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms. … Don’t look for the answers now: they cannot be given to you yet because you cannot yet live them, and what matters is to live everything.
“[This] is difficult, yes. But difficult things are what we are asked to do. Almost everything that matters is difficult, and everything matters.” (Ranier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, Letter 4)
Let us pray.
“O God, what will you do to conquer the fearful hardness of our hearts? Lord, you must give us new hearts, tender hearts, sensitive hearts, to replace hearts that are made of marble and bronze.
You must give us your own heart, Jesus. Come, lovable heart of Jesus. Place your heart deep in the center of our hearts and enkindle in each heart a flame of love.
O Holy Heart of Jesus, dwell hidden in my heart, so that I may live only in you and only for you, so that, in the end, I may live with you forever.
(Prayer of St. Claude la Colombiere)