This is my homily for Ash Wednesday. Feel free to respond with comments. To view the readings, go to http://www.usccb.org/nab and click “February 17” in the calendar.
[__01.] What are we here for? What am I here for? We might ask such a question as a general on the day of a particularly --- Difficult classroom experience or day at work or conversation with a family member.
We often ask ourselves – what are we here for? What are we after ?
In other words are we seeking something visible, external or something not so easily seen.
A few years ago (40?), the question was posed in a book, movie, and TV show called The Paper Chase. This took place at Harvard Law School.
And, the title – The Paper Chase – was meant to summarize something about the student-academic experience. That is, when we enter school, we do not necessarily have to wrestle with the question of …
Why am I here?
What am I here for ?
And, do we focus on the external rewards only?
That is, by focusing on the “paper” that we “chase”, we can avoid this question.
By “paper”, what I mean is:
All of these are made of paper. And, if we focus on the paper that we earn (on the outside) then, we really don’t have to worry too much about what we learn (or don’t learn) on the inside. As long as we have the paper, we’re fine, right?
In the movie The Paper Chase, we meet …
“[Hart, a first year law student at Harvard] -- he's actually interested in learning, not just for the material rewards that may follow, but for the power of the intellect to impose order on the chaos that most of us muddle through. Hart's hero is Professor Kingsfield, a brilliant, irascible old professor of contract law,” (Vincent Canby, New York Times review, 1973)
The law professor – played by John Houseman – is also a powerful protagonist in the film. “Professor Kingsfield” is Hart’s American Idol:
“On the first day of classes, Kingsfield haughtily informs the students that they've come to him with their heads full of mush and that he intends to train their minds. It isn't many movies that even acknowledge the existence of a mind, much less take it seriously.
Kingsfield has what is, in effect, a contract with his students, an agreement to turn them into first-class lawyers in return for their dedication to learning. He pushes them, bullies them, ridicules them, "Fill this classroom with your intelteligence," he tells Hart, who gets sick to his stomach. He treats the students as if they were abstractions. There's no sentiment in his discipline.” (Vincent Canby, New York Times review, 1973)
[__02.] The movie asks both an intellectual – and spiritual question – will my life be only about what is external, visible? Or, will my life also be about what cannot be seen so easily?
Today, we receive ashes on our forehead as a visible sign of our humanity, that we are dust.
Yet, this humanity and our place in God’s plan and universe is not so easily seen. We receive these ashes as a sign that we will return to dust – but we do not know when that exactly will be.
We do not know exactly what will happen between now and then. The ashes indicate that we are open to the Lord’s mysterious plan for our lives.
[__03.] Lent, 40 days, ashes
We also chase something, someone the Lord who has risen from the dead, who is visible in Holy Communion, but not quite visible in the way we might wish.
We start these 40 days of Lent knowing that he is here with us. We know that we receive him in Holy Communion. We know that he died for our sins. But, he did all this not exactly before our very eyes. Even this sacrifice of his life was made in secret for you.
And, he invites to come in secret to him. This is the message of the Gospel: “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.” (Matthew 6:6)
It would be a paper chase if we were to focus only on the external sacrifices – and inconveniences of Lenten penance and prayer.
These external sacrifices, abstaining from meat on Ash Wednesday and on Fridays are real. And, they bring us together as a Catholic community.
Yet, these external sacrifices are also the start of another journey.
[__04.] What the Lord is asking us to do is to bring our hearts, our interior, our true selves to him.
[__05.] For example, confessing our sins, going to confession,.
Lent is an excellent time to examine our lives – not only for what we may or may not have achieved – but also for what we may have intentionally done to distance our selves from him.
When we go to confession, we begin again with a clean heart.
[__06.] The ashes we receive today shows our desire to change our hearts, our desire for conversion.
These ashes also are a sign to others that we are open to more than outward success which is “on paper” or “in the bank”.
Rather, we are seeking – through the mark of these ashes another mark of contentment and joy.
The Paper Chase indicates that if you receive a good mark on your papers, you will receive even more valuable papers: the diploma, the job offer, the money.
Then, you can leave your mark on the world.
Ash Wednesday – on the other hand -- indicates that if you have the mark of the ashes, then you also have the mark of the Holy Spirit, the Lord will make his mark on you and help you in all your endeavors and chases.