Archbishop Peter A Comensoli preached the following homily on Ash Wednesday 2024 at St Francis’ Church in Melbourne.

Tender, compassionate, gracious, relenting.

These are the descriptors that the Prophet Joel gives to God when we turn back to him. They are very beautiful words to hear; they are powerful words to receive. When we look to being internally honest about ourselves before God, rather than being externally obvious in outward show, then God steps in tenderly and compassionately. God graciously relents; he is won over to us. As Joel put it, ‘let our hearts be broken, not our garments torn.’

Isaiah said very similar words, revealing the kind of fast that opens the heart of God.

Is not this the sort of fast that pleases me—to break unjust fetters and undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke, to share your bread with the hungry, and shelter the homeless poor, to clothe the [person] you see to be naked and not turn from your own kin? Then will your light shine like the dawn and your wound be quickly healed over.

Who does not wish for the wounds of our lives to be healed over? Who does not want to let the light of goodness shine from us? But this healing is not revealed, the light not shown, simply by doing external things of show. Jesus is quite clear about this—even challenging. Don’t parade our good works before others; don’t be a hypocrite by doing fancy praying; don’t get all showy in our fasting. But certainly pray; certainly repent; certainly live by way of charity and service.

Lent leads us to Christ, that Christ might lead us to salvation.

All of this, as we enter our time of Lent, is meant to point us, to direct us towards the sacrificial giving of Jesus from the cross and in his resurrection. Those words of Joel reappear in the passion of Christ: tenderness, compassion, graciousness, surrender. Especially surrender, for our sake. To reorient ourselves, to turn our faces towards the God who surrendered himself for us, is to enter into this spiritual season as a favourable time, a time of salvation, as St Paul described it.

It is an active season, not a passive one. Active in turning back, in seeking forgiveness, in conversion. By means of prayer, fasting and charity. But done in humility, selflessness, other-centred. It is an active season not to be noticed, yet to be revealing. Lent leads us to Christ, that Christ might lead us to salvation.

As we are marked on this Ash Wednesday, might its outward sign point to an inner reality. May we repent, and believe in the Good News of God, who, in Christ Jesus, is tender, compassionate, gracious and relenting.

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