February 13, 2013
A homily to begin Lent
Ash Wednesday 2013
2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
What does God ask of you? This is a question which the prophet Micah rhetorically asks and answers. His answer follows: to act justly; to love tenderly; and, to walk humbly with God. Let us concentrate on the latter point. But why does God ask this of me or you? Well, He most assuredly cares about us all, collectively and individually. He gave us free will—such a gift, but we have all abused it from time to time—sometimes in small ways, but other times in a manner of great magnitude. Yet both God and know that you and I will inexorably die. What then? Is that where acting justly and loving tenderly? No, and that is why He sent His only son, Jesus Christ, amongst us: to save us from our sins—for when we die, the inescapable question is: did we ask our Creator and those against whom we transgressed for forgiveness? This is a crucial way of walking humbly with God!
It may be this essence of our salvation history and God’s plan—which we commemorate during this holy season of Lent—that prompted the great poet and Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins to write his poem “As kingfishers catch fire…” Hopkins was no stranger to proclaiming God and all He created in his poetry—just think of his poems “The world is charged with the grandeur of God…” and “Glory be to God for dappled things…” But I return to the Kingfisher poem. Hopkins was not adverse to announcing God’s plan of salvation for the human person—addressing this was an imperative for the Jesuit poet and teacher. The stones of which he speaks that fall into the “roundy well” might well be us. Man has fallen—the stones tumble into the well’s depth; yet, Christ has come to save those who turn to Him. The kingfisher is no ordinary bird, it is brilliant in appearance, it is King, and it is fisher. Might it be Christ who has come to save us because, as we know, God so loved the world that He sent His only son so that we might live with Him forever?
My dear sisters and brothers: we sin, and when we do, we fall. We are those stones falling into a well that may collapse upon us with its tumbly rock. But there is hope; there is Christ—Christ the Kingfisher who searches not for food but for us when he “catches fire!”
Hopkins’s the Kingfisher may also be the one in the poem who cries out that the just person “justices”—i.e., does justice (or, as Micah reminds us, to act justly), who keeps grace (or, again as Micah reminds us, to love tenderly), and who is to be united with Christ. With clarity, Hopkins announces that the person is in ten thousand places, and are these those who are the one’s Micah says will walk humbly with God? If so, then the plan for human salvation is in place. But something yet is still needed, and what that is appears in the Lenten Celebration—a joyous occasion, as Saint Matthew suggests—which we begin this day. So, three points about this celebration now follow.
First, we are reminded of our need to walk with God, the son incarnate during Lent. The prophet Joel announces the time to pounder in our hearts what we have done so that we might return to God. What an extraordinary gift this Lent is: to do just that by praying to/talking with God. God’s mercy and forgiveness are there always: for the Kingfisher is ever present. But do we—do you, do I—wish to turn to him? If that is the question, the season to ponder it most effectively begins now. If all things are possible for God, might his forgiveness extend to us?
Indeed it can and will, but one further thing is needed, which leads me to the second point.
We must be reconciled with God as Saint Paul reminds not only for the church in Corinth but for us as well! As Saint Paul asserts, God desires us to serve the Son as his disciples—and this means we must be ambassadors for Christ going out into a world as His ambassadors: loving others tenderly, acting justly with them, knowing that along the way we are walking humbly with God. To do this, we must acknowledge honestly who we are: sinners loved by the one who made each of us. Therefore, to be His ambassadors—His disciples united in God’s labors in this world—we must purify ourselves. That is, we must turn from sinfulness and back to that grace, that presence of God in our lives that makes us “justice” as Hopkins eloquently argues, or to act justly as Micah asserts. Again, preparation is needed. But of what kind? And this is where the third and final point comes into play.
Saint Matthew offers his counsel to formulate what must be done in preparation: we do not pretend to honor God and our neighbor; rather, we must do this knowingly and willingly with the sincerity of our very fiber. This fundamental point necessitates turning to and relying upon God in our prayer. While there is much to be said about good works, these noble acts will have tarnish if the righteous deed is only for others to see and without regard for our own need for our personal purification. What is needed to make these works complete is that quiet place, that inner room where we pray, where we talk with God. When we fast, even though our outer appearance may be stunning, we follow suit—robustness on the external, seeking God in the internal. Then God will see our authentic heart over which we ponder with Him, as the prophet Joel counsels. We enter a sober season, my friends, but it is not filled with gloom: it is, to the contrary, joyous!
It is joyous because we are serious about who we are, viz. Christ’s disciples; we know that the Kingfisher is in our lives helping us to steer clear of sin and practice virtue to act justly, love tenderly, and walk humbly with the one who came to save us all.
I am certain that there are times when what has been outlined here is our resolve for we recall those occasions when we pondered in our hearts how best to serve God with fidelity. But there is always temptation lurking in the dark corners of our lives—temptations that we have allowed to sweep us up into sin and away from God. That is when an example of those heroes God sends us to help us with our own purification become most helpful.
One such example is our Holy Father who made his remarkable announcement on Monday of renouncing the Chair of Peter. What will he do, you might ask once he is no longer Peter? He has told us: he will purify himself. He will use his remaining days to go to a private place out of the public eye to pray to God and talk with Him.
Might we not do the same? Let us give it our most hearty try during this holy season which we begin this day! With this as our disposition, can the Kingfisher be far off?
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