I can remember an Ash Wednesday Mass about 16 years ago. We had placed the Ashes for Blessing and Distribution in the Sanctuary. The Lenten focus area had been carefully prepared with the Book of the Gospels, the Crown of Thorns and a bowl of ashes to remind us of our need for prayer and repentance. The ashes in the focus area were from one of our team members’ barbeque pits – ONLY as a visible reminder to pray.
After the homily and before we knew what was happening, the priest very ceremoniously, along with the permanent deacon, marched straight over to the focus area, bypassing the three bowls of palm ash. To my dismay, he blessed the barbecue ash. Gene tried to stop the priest and explain, but it was too late to turn back now. The deacon and I made eye contact as the priest blessed him with the “ashes” and then had the deacon bless him. I remember thinking to myself “Remember that thou art BBQ ash and to BBQ ash thou shalt return.” It puts a whole new twist on the saying: “We are what we eat.”
As this Lenten season begins, what is our focus? In the first reading, the prophet Joel calls to the people of Israel to return to the Lord with their whole heart; to fast, to weep, and to mourn. Joel reminds the people of a God of Mercy and Love who so wants them to come back to Him and to receive the covenant Love and Mercy that He has to offer.
God spends His time longing for our return to Him. Our fasting, prayer and almsgiving during Lent are not so much about proving to ourselves and others that we can do it. They are about coming into closer relationship with the God who saves us through His son. These practices call us to seek God where He is: in the midst of the poor and marginalized. It is only when we reach out the least in our midst that we will find God.
As we begin this season, may we long for the God who longs for us as we reach out to those in our lives in most need of our mercy and compassion.
Unlike that Ash Wednesday many years ago when it was too late to turn back from the BBQ ash, God reminds us that it is never too late to turn back to Him and to find Him right here in our midst.