At the beginning of her classic memoir, “The Long Loneliness,” Dorothy Day writes about what it is like to go to confession.
She sets the stage: “Incense in the air, the smell of burning candles…the noise of the streets coming in to emphasize the stillness.”
But then she gets to the point of it all. How hard it is.
Going to confession is hard, she writes, and she compares it to writing. Writing a book is hard, she explains, because you are “giving yourself away.”
But she adds:
“If you love, you want to give yourself.”
That line from Dorothy Day has stayed with me and it moved me — as a writer, as a deacon, as a husband and as Catholic Christian.
If you want to know what these 40 days are all about, that’s it.
If you love, you want to give yourself.
That is at the heart of our practice every Lent — as I repeat almost every year from this pulpit, it’s not just about giving up, but giving.
Of course, after the year we’ve all had, the idea of Lent might seem almost redundant. Haven’t we sacrificed enough?
It can feel that way.
But today, in the first hours of Lent, we are challenged to ask ourselves: Have I loved enough? Have I given enough?
Am I ready to give more?
In the readings, we hear the prophet call us to “rend your hearts, not your garments.”
To rend means to tear, to break open. This is a time for breaking open our hearts.
And we begin that, as we do every year, with a powerful sign of humility, remembering that we are dust. We are marked with ashes.
Like so many things, the distribution of ashes this year is different. We won’t bear the mark on our foreheads for all to see. Instead, we will bow our heads and be sprinkled.
Most of the world may not know that we have gotten ashes this year.
But we will know. That is enough.
If anyone is disappointed that you won’t have that mark on our brow, consider this.
First, we are connecting with history. The Jews of the Old Testament wore ashes this way as a sign of atonement. In a sense, we are connecting ourselves with our Jewish roots, to the forebears of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
Secondly, this is actually the most common practice around the world. It is the way the pope has gotten ashes for decades. As I told someone on Facebook the other day, “If it’s good enough for the pope, it’s good enough for me.” It binds us to the universal church.
Thirdly, it is a haunting echo of baptism. But instead of having water poured over our heads, washing away the stain of sin, dust is scattered over us, the remnants of burned palms. The fresh and clean has been replaced by the parched and dry. It should stir our hearts to do all we can to make ourselves new, to restore what we were given at baptism.
Finally, it is dusty and it is messy. But so is life. So are our sins. A friend of mine, William Toler, a liturgist in Cleveland, Ohio, described it this way:
“Yes, it’s a mess. We come to this day of entering even further into the mess in order to arrive at the joy of the resurrection.”
And now our journey toward that joy begins.
When she described confession, Dorothy Day explained: “’I have sinned. These are my sins.’ That is all you are supposed to tell…only your ugly, gray, drab monotonous sins.”
“Ugly. Gray. Drab. Monotonous.” Like ash. Well, we carry this tangible reminder of our fallen world with us today — and begin the hard work of making ourselves new.
Consider this Lent, then, not just another time for sacrifice.
Consider it a time to be made new.
A time to resolve to live differently — as true and faithful followers of Christ.
A time to resolve to love differently. Which means, of course, to love like Christ, the kind of love that extended its arms on the cross.
And so we fast. We pray. We give alms the poor.
We strive to give — and in that giving, love.
“If you love, you want to give yourself.”
The question before us today: How can we give more?
How can we live more generously? How can we love more deeply?
How can we leave this place today and be, as St. Paul put it to the Corinthians, “ambassadors for Christ”?
Several years ago, on Ash Wednesday, Pope Francis spoke of the three words that define how we should observe this season. The words are: pause, see and return.
Those words are a great place to start.
Pause, he said, from noise, from empty gestures, from the need to show off, from the urge to want to control everything.
See, he said, the faces of families striving to do their best. See the elderly, the sick, children yearning for hope. See the remorseful and the searching. See the face of Christ crucified.
And return. Return, he said, without fear. Return to celebrate with those who are forgiven. Return to the Father to experience his healing.
Return like prodigals, walking the road home, to a place of love and mercy, into the arms of the Father.
Pause. See. Return.
This Lent, may God touch our torn, broken hearts, so that we may pause…see…and return.
Today, may the ashes that fall on our heads remind us of what we are — so that we may become what we are meant to be.
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