The Deacon's Bench

The Deacon's Bench

Homily for February 17, 2010: Ash Wednesday

Last year, the writer Mary Karr published a beautiful memoir of her life, and her conversion to Catholicism. Some have actually compared it to the “Confessions” of St. Augustine. The book is called “Lit.” The title refers to literature, but also to the idea of carrying within you a kind of light, of being “lit.”

It’s not always easy reading. Karr writes about growing up in an abusive, alcoholic home…about her early, unsatisfying marriage…about her own struggles with addiction and time she spent in a mental hospital.


At one point, she describes her father’s final illness. The family knew he was deteriorating, and they brought him home to die. He often had difficulty speaking. But repeatedly, surprisingly, he managed to communicate one simple word: “Garfield.” Well, he had an orange Garfield the cat coffee mug by his bed, and people thought he was talking about that.

But his daughter Mary realized, after a time, the real meaning and poignancy of that one word: “Garfield.” He wasn’t talking about a cartoon cat. He never even read the comic page in the paper. No, Mary realized: that word meant something else. It was the family’s address — 4901 Garfield Street. He was talking about where he lived. “Garfield,” to him, meant home. Safety. Security. Even, perhaps, love. He wanted everyone to know that was where he was, where he wanted to be, and where he belonged.


And so it is, I think, with all of us.

It’s one reason we are here, on this ordinary day, in the middle of an ordinary week, to declare our desire, our yearning, our hope. We want to return to God.

We want to be home.

It turns out, that’s what God wants, too. “Return to me, with your whole heart,” we hear in the first reading from Joel. We are prodigal children, who have drifted away. We need to be back where we belong, in the arms of a loving father.

And so we begin the return: Lent, the long 40-day walk back.

Lent is a penitential season, a time for doing without. Ashes are just the beginning. Our music becomes simpler, our liturgies plainer. The “Gloria” is gone. We fast, we pray. We may give up chocolates or meat or television. But for all of this season’s sobriety, we shouldn’t lose sight of something vitally important: this is a journey we undertake with joy.


Part of that is because we are seeking to draw closer to God – the source and summit of our happiness. But part of it, I think, is something else, too.  Something that goes to our roots as Catholic Christians.

It’s right there, in our baptism. When we were baptized, our parents and godparents received a tiny flame, a burning candle, with the words, “Receive the light of Christ.” Well, that light still burns. Maybe it’s dimmed. Maybe it is only a small ember now. Maybe it’s had to struggle against wind and cold. Maybe we’ve ignored it, or forgotten it.

But the light is there.

So yes, this day is about ashes.

But Lent? Lent is about that fire.

Over the next 40 days, let’s ask ourselves: how can we fan the flame, and make it grow? How can we turn a flicker into a blaze?


Or to borrow the title of Mary Karr’s book: how can we affirm to the world that we are lit?

In a few moments, ashes – the remnant of a flame — will be placed on your forehead. And the great work of these 40 days will begin. Work of conversion and repentance. The work of praying more faithfully, loving more deeply.

And when you go into the world today, those ashes will speak volumes – about belief, about commitment, and even about hope. People will pass you on the street, see you at the office, sit beside you on the subway. They’ll notice something different.  They may give you a curious look at Key Food, or stare at your forehead when you step up to the counter at the bank.

Most of them may only see the ashes.


But strive for something else. Strive to let them see the flame.

Strive to bring them the light of Christ.

Because these 40 days are about much more than ashes. They are about that light — and about rediscovering something we may have too easily forgotten.

In spite of sin and indifference, in spite of living in a world crowded by cynicism and doubt, we are still what our baptism proclaimed us to be. We are “children of the light.”

And the candle still burns.

Comments read comments(13)
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posted February 17, 2010 at 4:17 am


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Giovanna Mandel

posted February 17, 2010 at 7:05 am

Wonderful. The flame has been lit.

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Deacon Alex Breviario

posted February 17, 2010 at 7:33 am

May your light continue to shine brightly…
Have a blessed journey these next forty days!

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posted February 17, 2010 at 8:36 am

Thank you for reminding me to shine!

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posted February 17, 2010 at 8:46 am

Deacon Kandra,
Beautiful homily. Many thanks for sharing it.
I have a question for you though, one I’ve had since I’ve been a third grader. The readings for today talk about prayer, fasting, and almsgiving being important, but essentially private actions, more or less between the person and God. Why then, are we signed with ashes and for a good number of people, publicly display them. When I was a child, I used to pull my winter hat down over my forehead because I really felt that something was not connecting the readings to what we actually do. It was just as much a public display as buying seafood in the market and waiting in line to do that too. How come we do these things and how do you make sense of the apparent contradiction. Please understand this is really a sincere question, not a trap. I really want to make sense of this for myself and my children.
Many thanks for your attention to this. And a blessed Lent to you and yours. Thanks for being here.

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Liz MacAdams

posted February 17, 2010 at 10:46 am

Very well done! God has truly blessed you. I will keep this homily during the next 40 days as a reminder of being a child of the light.

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Fran Rossi Szpylczyn

posted February 17, 2010 at 11:18 am

Oh this is quite wonderful. How I would love to hear you preach one day.
Thanks for posting your homilies, they are treasures.

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Steve P

posted February 17, 2010 at 11:24 am

Dcn. Greg,
Truly this is one of your best, and that’s no mean feat. Thank you, thank you, thank you for humbly allowing yourself to put our faith into words so beautifully.
A blessed and truly joy-filled Lent to you and all those you touch.
In Christ,

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Franklin Jennings

posted February 17, 2010 at 1:56 pm

I’m not the deacon, but I would like to share the answer that finally satisfied me on this same question…
The gospel for today talks about what we do as individuals: my prayer, my fasting, my almsgiving, all undertaken by me, as my own personal gesture toward the Lord.
But the imposition of ashes, Friday abstinence, and Ash Wednesday and Good Friday fasting, are all corporate. That is, these are not things I choose to do on my own, but are penances imposed on us by our community.
Think about it, how much good did that carpenter/itenrant preacher in Palestine 2000 yrs ago do, on His own, as an expression of love for His Father? We’ll never know, because I assume He keeps His own counsel. But He did not hesitate to pray publically in the synagogue, to sit down to the Pascha feast with His neighbors, to be baptised publically by His forerunner.
When I fast and pray and give alms in my daily life, I try to keep it secret. (I admit I succumb to pride quicker than most though.) But when the Church says we all should fast, and abstain, and walk about with smudgy foreheads, I do it in good conscience, knowing it isnt some choice of mine that proclaims my holiness, but a sign of my belonging in His Body.
Even if I’m just the nail on the pinky toe.

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posted February 17, 2010 at 4:04 pm

DDear Kate:
Just like Franklin, I am not deacon or priest. I’m just a proud Catholic and a humble servant of Christ. Your question is a very valid one and when I read it I had to stop for a second to think about the answer. So I hope the following reflection helps you in finding your own answer.
The display of the ashes on your forehead can have several meanings. Some of these meanings may be very personal and some others are connected to fact that we are part of the Catholic Church and its teachings. In my case, the ashes on my forehead give me a sense of belonging to something wonderful; of being part of something greater called the Catholic Church. I proudly display these ashes as a symbol of my connection to the Church and the beliefs Christ instituted over 2000 years ago.
On the more personal level, however, the ashes are a silent reminder of the connection I have to God and his Son. For me they represent penance and the beginning of a period of reflection and prayer. They also represent for me a great sense of humility when I bow my head to the sign of the cross.
What the ashes really mean to me are very personal and unknown to those who are around me. And I think that is how Christ wants it. There is nothing wrong in displaying with humility the sings of our faith and our belief in God and his son. But the true meaning of those ashes on our foreheads is something very personal that should only be known to our hearts and souls, and to GOD.
May God bless you!!!

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posted February 18, 2010 at 11:55 am

Franklin and Jaime,
Thanks for your responses. You both make good points. Overall, it doesn’t really matter to me what people do or don’t do vis a vis Ash Wednesday and receiving ashes. What I have noticed is that there are two subsequent posts by Deacon Kandra that kind of point out the contradiction even better than my question: the Biden and baby posts. However, it was a comment at the site Inside Catholic that really points out what a problem pride is and how unfortunately we can really miss the point of signs like ashes.
“I love going to Mass, at the end of which, The Priest signs my forehead with Ashes, making the Sign of the Cross, while saying; Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return, and then I hop in my car and drive to The Mall where, for the next hour or so, I, slowly, walk around making eye contact with as many people as I can with a Yes-I-am-holier-than-you-just-look-at-the-ashes-on-my-forehead look.
Maybe it is just me, but I think that is the best way to begin Lent.”
I’ve left the commenter nameless, but the comment he made underlines my question.
See, I’ve gone to mass on Ash Wednesday many a time. I have always chosen to remove my ashes because it’s no one’s business but my own. I get the communal part of Lent; I really do. However, there’s a reason why Dante had pride on the lowest level of purgatory. It’s a contradiction that I find pride wins more often than not. What saddens me, is that so many of us really miss the point. Ashes are now about Catholic pride, a kind of “hey, look at me! I did my good doobie deed of the day. Aren’t I a good person?” No wonder, no one in any official Church capacity wants to touch my question with a 50-foot pole. But the Biden story and the baby story, especially the baby story Deacon Kandra posted, make my point and concern even better than I ever could. So have the commenters who wrote about people coming at all hours to be signed with ashes. I really think my nine-year-old self was on to something really important, though. It’s given me much pause for thought and reflection these many years, that’s for sure.

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Darryl A Collins

posted March 7, 2011 at 3:29 pm

Thanks Deacon Greg
I am from Saudi Arabia aged 61 years and still in the service of the Lord as a Eucharistic Minister of Holy Communion, commissioned to reach out to all our Catholic brothers and sisters in this vast fanatic country.
Your message has given light for this year’s Ash Wednesday in which I have come to understand that from the time we were baptised the Light of Jesus kept burning in our lives and of course burnt out all that is not of Him which we attach ourselves to this materialistic world.
And it all becomes ashes at the end of our lives but our soul will continue to be in the light of Jesus.
God Bless you and coninue to pray for us here in Saudi Arabia.
Your Bro in Christ

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