Father Arturo Perez-Rodriguez blesses ashes at Assumption Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Chicago. Catholic New World/Karen Callaway

‘The Lord Loves Dust’

Strategies for planning Lenten homilies

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Many of our people begin Lent with the common question, “What am I going to do for Lent?” We preachers struggle to help them go beyond giving up chocolate and beer, but we know Lent is not a 40-day weight-loss program. So, what are we going to preach for Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday begins the 40 days of Lent. Converted sinners in an ancient rite used ashes to show their public penance. We do the same today. The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy says, “The act of putting on ashes symbolizes fragility and mortality, and the need to be redeemed by the mercy of God” (No. 125). The external ashes manifest internal repentance toward conversion. Along with self-denial, good works and solidarity with the poor and needy, ashes turn us toward what really matters, God’s mercy.

The rubrics tell us that the priest or deacon, after the homily, asks God to bless the ashes “which we will put on our heads in penitence.” Then he and the ministers place ashes on the head of all who come forward. They say one of two formulas, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel,” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

If Mass is celebrated, the Liturgy of the Eucharist follows the universal prayer. The prayer over the offerings mentions our works of penance and charity but continues to hammer home our entreaty that the Lord turn us away from harmful pleasures, cleanse us from our sins and make us worthy to celebrate the Passion.

Listen to the Word

Having looked at the Liturgy of Ash Wednesday, our next step is to listen to the word of the Lord.

In the first reading, the prophet Joel sounds the watchman’s alarm: Jerusalem is in grave danger! A winter drought and locust invasion were only a glimpse of the imminent day of the Lord and total destruction. Their only chance of survival was communal repentance. Even the elders, infants at the breast, and the bride and bridegroom, normally excused from fasting, must take part. “Rend your hearts, not your garments, / and return to the LORD, your God” (Jl 2:13). There is good news. “For gracious and merciful is he” (v. 14).

The responsorial psalm is Psalm 51. “Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned” responds to the reading from Joel and gives us the words to beg for mercy.

In the second reading, Paul is an ambassador for Christ. He implores on behalf of Christ, “Be reconciled to God.” Why wait? “Behold, now is a very acceptable time” (2 Cor 6:2). The text repeats Joel’s call to return to the Lord without a moment to lose.

The Gospel text makes clear that we are to fast, pray and give alms in secret. We are to pray in our inner room, wash our face and not let our left hand know that our right hand is giving alms lest people praise our penitential practices. “And your Father who sees in secret will repay you” (Mt 6:4). The exception to the secrecy is ashes. The liturgy gives us this public sign for all to see our repentance.

The Listener

The preacher’s final step is to listen to the listener. Know your audience!

My parish’s biggest liturgy on Ash Wednesday is an after-school Liturgy of the Word filled with schoolchildren and families. Children might not understand nine-dollar words like conversion and repentance, but they do know the words, “I’m sorry.” They know that it is important to show you are sorry. Ashes show we are sorry. Children’s toy blocks with the letters P for pray, F for fast and A for almsgiving show we are sorry. (Hint: Reassure the children that the ashes are not hot.)

On the other hand, an early morning Liturgy of the Word for those going to work can skip directly to the bottom line: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Our activity in the world matters. Our prayer, fasting and almsgiving matter. God’s work to save us from sin, however, matters most.

Finally, an evening liturgy sweeps in workers, families and youths. Caught up in sports and organic gluten-free foods, families get the analogy that as our physical health depends on eating right and exercising, our spiritual health depends on repentance. Just as a doctor heals our bodies, God the Father, the Divine Physician, heals our souls. Our lives depend on his loving mercy.

Preaching Strategies

What are we going to preach for Ash Wednesday and Lent? Repent!

A strategy to preach on “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” can kick off a Lent series that refers to the TV show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” Each episode features a family suffering a huge hardship. The show sends the family on a paid vacation while it renovates their home. Each Sunday of Lent in Cycle A lends itself to preach on the extreme makeover of a person in the Sunday readings. Call it “Extreme Makeover: Lent Edition.”

The First Sunday of Lent, “I’ve Fallen and I Can’t Get Up,” Adam and Eve fall from paradise to purgatory, showing that our life with God can go from good to bad when we sin.

On the second Sunday, Abraham is changed from a childless old man to the father of the faith of many nations when he puts his trust in the Lord, modeling our conversion from not knowing the Lord to trusting him with our lives.

The Third Sunday of Lent looks at the woman at the well. Her extreme makeover from outcast to believer shows Jesus’ work to change us from looking for love in all the wrong places to a living relationship with the God of love.

The fourth Sunday focuses on the man born blind and given sight. Our extreme makeover by Christ is from darkness to light, from ignorance to truth, from seeing Jesus as only a man to knowing he is our Savior.

The fifth Sunday tells us of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Our conversion is from death to life, from slavery to freedom.

Each Sunday of Lent, we can make three points about our conversion. First, you and I are in great need of an extreme makeover. Second, the makeover is done by the Lord at no cost to us. Third, the makeover makes us better than new.

Ash Wednesday kicks off the “Extreme Makeover: Lent Edition” with the biblical words, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” The ashes are our acceptance that we are in great need of an extreme makeover by the Lord.

A strategy to preach on “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” can begin with our mortality. After Adam and Eve sinned, God declared that they were now mortal, “For you are dust …” (Gn 3:19). We are dust, we are mortal.

The next move is humility. As captured in Percy Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias,” empires and institutions, human desire and effort, and our own labors and bodies crumble one day to dust. This perspective tempers our pride with humility and acknowledges our misplaced priorities in the passing world. If we stop here, however, we can despair.

The good news is that God loves dust. “The Lord God formed the man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Gn 2:7). God has given us divine CPR with his own spirit.

Our hope is not in what we accomplish but in what God has accomplished to make us live again. He doesn’t say, “Wipe your feet at the door.” He says, “Come on in, I’ll wash your feet.”

Here an example such as a parent kissing a toddler’s face creamed with food brings out that the love of God is greater than our embarrassing mess. Christ suffered and died to clean up our mess.

For a concluding connection to communion and mission, paint a picture. For instance, at the grocery store later in the day, someone might helpfully offer, “You have dirt on your forehead.” We can, in turn, help them understand: “No, it’s dust. And the Lord loves dust.” 

FATHER DAVID SCOTCHIE is a priest for the Diocese of Orlando and has served in five parishes. He holds a doctorate of ministry in preaching from the Aquinas Institute in St. Louis and is an instructor in homiletics.

 
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