Tag Archives: Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday Homily (for students)

Blake Sheldon. Jennifer Hudson. Adam Levine. Miley Cyrus. The Voice. The judges. Last season. Even if you don’t watch the show, you’ve seen the commercials. Blind Auditions. A nervous singer on a dark stage, judges facing the opposite way, towards the audience.

Talk about stress. I bet it takes a lot of courage to be willing to be judged like that on national TV. Imagine how that must feel? If the judges like what they hear, they hit a red button, and the chair spins around in approval. A sign lights up beneath their seat. “I want you.” Wow.

We’ve all had anxious moments like those singers, haven’t we, when we wanted so badly to be chosen? Will the coaches choose me to start on varsity? What if my chemistry project doesn’t get chosen? Will I get accepted to my first choice of colleges? What if none of my friends show up after school?

Sometimes we are chosen. But sometimes we are not. Let’s face it: sometimes we are not at our best. Maybe we let ourselves down, took a few shortcuts, maybe started doubting ourselves. The mystics and psychologists tell us that if we dig deep enough, we’ll always find some stuff we are not proud of. That’s the core of what St. Ignatius refers to as a ‘loved sinner’ in the Spiritual Exercises. It sounds something like this….

How could anyone choose me? Why would any of those judges’ turn around for me?

When I was in high school, I used to think Lent was a sort of blind audition for God’s attention. A dark obstacle course, controlled by a God facing the other way. I used to think… if I pray, if I fast, if I abstain – just like what Jesus’ asks us to do in Matthew’s Gospel today – maybe God will judge me favorably. Love me a little more. Maybe bless me a little more.

But to paraphrase that great philosopher Dustin Henderson from Stranger Things, “Sometimes, my total obliviousness just blows God’s mind.”  No, it took a few years for God to teach me one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned. That there is nothing any of us can do during Lent – or any other time — that will get God to love us any more than He does right now. You can’t earn God’s favor. During the next 40 days, we’re all called to look with humility on our sinfulness… but the intent is to change our actions, our hearts, our minds — not God’s.

What am I saying?  It’s simply this: before you were born, before you even knew what an audition was, God had already hit the red button. His chair had already turned around. The creator of the universe is calling out your name, a smile ear to ear, despite your failures, your sins, your flaws. That’s what Jesus did, ransomed our sins through His death and resurrection. An economy of grace. Not an economy of merit.

You know, those Blind Auditions are only the first few episodes. The rest of the season continues with the Battle Rounds, the Knockout Rounds, the Playoffs. The real work begins after they singers have been chosen.  Just like us.

Imagine the bottom of God’s judging chair not saying “I want you”, but “I need you.”  To serve the poor, to go to confession, to defend the marginalized, to honestly repent,  to get involved in your parish, to help out with our school service programs, to go to Mass… these are the most important ‘acts’ you will ever perform.  That’s what the ashes mean. You are marked by God. To do great things.

But unlike The Voice, you’re not up on a stage all alone. As the Prophet Joel instructs the Israelites in our first reading, “call an assembly; gather the people, assemble the elders….”  So, too, with us. Just look around.

If the #Me Too movement has taught us anything, it’s that one courageous voice, multiplied by thousands – millions — can and does make a difference.

Just like the ocean of neon, our student cheering section, dressed so colorfully behind the basket at the Jesuit Cup. E Pluribus Unum. We all could feel the love. And win or lose, your cheers did not stop. And that’s the type of solidarity and support our world so desperately needs today. Are you up for the challenge?

C.S. Lewis said it best, of course.  He almost always does.

Even though our feelings come and go, God’s love for us does not. A love not wearied by our sins, or our indifference. A love quite relentless in its determination to heal us… at whatever cost to us… and at whatever cost to Christ.

Ash Wednesday Homily for High-School Students.

Have you ever been really lost? I mean… way, way, way off course?

Many, many years ago, I spent a summer in South Central, Los Angeles volunteering to serve the families affected by gang violence. I lived in a rectory of a vibrant Church, and I met many wonderful people. But it was a rough area. My first week, as I was lying in bed with the window open, I heard a gun fight right behind the church. Then, someone ran right past me down the alley. I could hear him huffing and puffing.

Like all volunteer programs, we got a break day, and so we decided to head out to the California beaches about 20 miles away. This was Los Angeles, after all, and we were young, scrappy and hungry. So we hopped in a car and, with a general idea of where to go, and we were off.

Now, if you’ve been out there you know there are some long, straight roads… and we just kept driving and driving, talking and talking.

I’m not good at geography, but I remember growing more and more confused as I saw hills and mountains getting closer.  When we finally pulled over, we ask this a man where the beach was. “Dude,” he said, “the Pacific Ocean is about 60 miles that a-way.”

We were way off course. When we had left our neighborhood onto the main road, we should have taken a left, not a right.

That wouldn’t have happened today, of course. No, today I have an iPhone and GPS. Google Maps. Now if I take a wrong turn, it doesn’t yell at me, or make me feel bad. No, with incredibly patience, it whispers in my ear… “rerouting”.

It’s amazing how that works, isn’t it? Analyzing all that traffic history, collecting thousands of real-time data points from people travelling, projecting how long it will take to get me where I need to be. The safest route.

Like Lent, if you think about it. Like when you fail, when you miss the mark, when you sin against God and neighbor – and end up feeling guilty, anxious or depressed. You might be feeling like that right now. You feel way off course. Truth be told, we all do at times.

But today – Ash Wednesday – if you can look beyond your guilt, your shame, your suffering, you’ll realize that God is showing you a new way. You’ll realize that Jesus will take you right where you’re at – on that dead end street, in that relationship heading south, in a group of friends that at times seems like they are not moving — and patiently suggest the right path, a solid blue line.

Imagine God’s voice for a moment…

“I know you’re lost. I know you’ve sinned. I know you’re not the person you want to be.”


“You might feel terrible right now, but I won’t let your guilt destroy your identity.”


“You are not the sum total of your sins.  A contrite heart is My delight.”


“Come travel safely with me.”


“I only desire prayer, sacrifice and almsgiving.”

You are on the fastest route.

There are many ways, of course, to find your right course. After all, it’s been done many times. Like maybe stop using foul language, to stop eating when you are not hungry, to stop trying to be funny at the expense of others.

Just another way of saying “fasting…” from today’s Gospel.

Or maybe for you rerouting means a little more solitude. In your room, in Church before you receive the body and blood of Christ. Taking a break from your racing mind going on and on about your GPA, about college, about co-workers.

That’s “prayer…”

Or, maybe committing a few dollars to our mission collection, or giving up Starbucks for 40 days and donate the money you saved.

That’s “almsgiving…”

You know, our Catechism says that the call of Jesus is “radical reorientation of our whole life, a return to God with all our heart, a turning away from evil with the desire and resolution to change our life with the help of God’s grace.”  That’s our promise.

So this morning, let’s re-imagine what those ashes on our foreheads will mean. Let’s see them for what they are — a sign. A sign that says we trust in our Tradition, our community, our GPS system.

The same Tradition that guided C.S. Lewis and his favorite book Sacred Scripture. The same Tradition that gave us Pope Francis and Gregor Mendel. The same Tradition that gave directions to Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor and St. Thomas Aquinas.

A Tradition that reminds us, again and again, that we have been saved by Almighty God.

We finally made it to the beach that day. And I promise that if you open your hearts and listen very carefully to the Lord this morning, you will make it to your destination.

“Repent, and believe the Gospel.”

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”