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ASH WEDNESDAY: Day of Fast and Abstinence

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 Jesus is reminding us of a tough lesson.  He tells us to stop being hypocrites, to stop looking like Christians on the outside while being self-centred, arrogant, and egotistical on the inside.
The word "hypocrite" comes from the Greek word for "actor".  Actors pretend to be someone they're not. That's OK on stage, but not in real life. Jesus is encouraging us to take off our masks, to stop pretending, to once again be true to our true selves. 

That is a hard lesson for us, for two reasons. 

First, we don't like to admit that we sometimes act like hypocrites. But the fact is, we do. We try to deceive, to wheedle, to give the right impression, even if it's false. We try to hide our motives. We are all hypocrites in some way.

 Second, we are afraid that if we take off our mask, God may reject us. And no one wants to be rejected.

But Jesus gives us a reason to trust him enough to accept this hard lesson. 
The reason is that he already knows us through and through, and even so, he loves us.  

He repeats this three times, when he says that the Father sees what we do in secret. 

That means he has seen all of the most selfish, vitriolic, and morose chapters of our ongoing interior monologues. Everything. He knows it all. And yet, he still loves us with the tender love of the perfect Father, the perfect friend. He still wants us to live close to him - closer and closer, actually. That's why he keeps telling us to give alms and pray and fast "in secret". He wants us to stay close to him, to live our lives in intimate friendship with him.

 The ashes that we use today are meant to remind us of these things. 
First, they remind us that we are sinners. Although we are children of God, at the same time we are still children of this fallen world.   Ashes are lifeless dust. Insofar as we still give in to our tendencies to selfishness and sin, we too are lifeless dust.

 Sin separates us from God, who is the source of all life. Without God's redeeming spirit in us, we would have no hope of eternal life. 
These ashes are made from the palm branches we used on Palm Sunday last year. They symbolized Christ's victory over sin. Our sins forfeit that victory. They destroy the life that God means us to live, just as the palm branches from last year's Palm Sunday were destroyed to make these ashes.

Third, and most importantly, the ashes remind us that in spite of our sins, in spite of our deep-seeded selfishness, God hasn't given up on us.  Christ is our Redeemer! He claims us for his own. We still have a mission in his Kingdom; he still wants us to be his ambassadors.

Yes, we are marked with ashes, because we are sinners, but the mark is given in the sign of Christ's cross, which won for us the grace of a fresh start and a new life.  

We are marked on our foreheads, because Christ wants us to go boldly into the world as his representatives. 

He is not ashamed of us; he wants our friendship. He is our Saviour. 

 Christ's love, this love that never wavers, no matter what, can transform our lives. It is the same love that took Jesus to the cross, and then took him out of the grave. 

Isn't there part of our lives that need to be resurrected? Isn't there part of our hearts that need to be touched anew with this redeeming love? 
There is a simple way to let this love in.  It's a way that Christ himself designed. It's a guaranteed method, guaranteed by Christ. It's called going to confession.

Confession is both an antidote to the hypocrisy Christ is warning us about and a reassertion of our confidence in his unfailing love. By going to confession we take inventory of the many ways in which we have given in to selfishness, failed Christ, and caused damage to ourselves and others. And after taking that inventory, we get on our knees and ask God's forgiveness; we let his grace do spring cleaning in our souls. This is the surest way to take off our masks.

At the same time, it reasserts our Christian identity.  When we confess our sins through this sacrament, we make a clear statement that we still belong to Jesus, we want to do things his way, and we trust in him.

 Christ wants to resurrect the parts of our lives that have been deadened by sin, hypocrisy, and fear. Today, in this Mass, let's promise that we will let him do so, that we will take off our masks and give his grace free rein. 


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