9 MARCH 2011

This Gospel presumes that we are all going to do something for Lent.  The question is ‘What’ and ‘How’ and ‘Why’?  I take your presence here as a sign that you wish to do something this Lent.  Your decision to come here and have ashes placed on your forehead is already a sign.  It is a sign that you want to use this Lent as a time when you will try and follow Christ more faithfully and more consistently.  There are two possible formulae of words which are used when the ashes are placed on the forehead.  One is: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”  And the second: “Remember man, you are dust and to dust you will return.”

The first is based on the words of Jesus himself.  The second comes from the Old Testament.  So I think I will stick to the first today: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”  That is how Jesus began his preaching.  It would be a good way for us to begin Lent.

Turn away from sin – that was the theme of the First Reading – come back to the Lord with all your heart.  Turn to the Lord, your God again, for he is all tenderness and compassion.  He will take pity on us, his people.

I must say that in a sort of way I dread Lent.  I know that it is a time of grace, a time when we go out into the desert as Jesus went to fast and be tempted.  I know I begin full of good and generous intentions but I often find that it is a case indeed of ‘the spirit being willing but that the flesh is weak’ and yet it is a time when the words of St Paul come to my mind often: “I chastise my body and bring it into supplication, in case that having preached to others, I might myself become a castaway.”  I do like the sound of that word ‘castaway’.  It reminds me of castoff.  Castaway – it suggests being cast out of the presence of the Lord forever – too terrible to even contemplate and yet contemplate it we must.

For Lent is that time of year when we stop and take stock.  We are all on the journey of life, one year older than we were last Lent.  One year nearer our final destination.  Lent is the time when we stop and contemplate what that final destination is: it is a time when we contemplate that other journey – the journey of self-discovery – who we are – where did we come from? Where are we headed to?  How much progress are we making?  I came across a book recently with the title: The Interior Voyage – The Journey.  It begins with these challenging words: “The question of prayer haunts the heart of everyone always, no matter what the level of their spiritual life.”  For prayer is the link to that mysterious place which holds the key to authentic peace of heart.

It is worth noting what happens immediately after the Baptism of Jesus.  The Holy Spirit drove him out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  St Mark simply says: “He was with the beasts and angels looked after him.”

In the wilderness Jesus must make the basic choice to trust God, no matter what.  Under very great pressure, he is hungry and weak, he makes his choice.  And we could ask ourselves, who does Jesus remind you of at this moment of decision?

The story of Jesus in the wilderness is told as a journey in three stages.  Perhaps we could try and recall times when we felt in a wilderness.  Maybe we were led there by the Spirit of God to be tested and grow strong.  

Do we sometimes go into the wilderness not led by the Spirit, and what happens then? Do we sometimes seek out ourselves the places and occasions of temptation and what happens then?  It can be disastrous.

The second stage of the journey is the actual temptations.  They are actually three sides of the same temptation – not to trust God.  It is the temptation to follow the way of achievement on our own steam, rather than place our trust in the help of God.  

I thank God today for the great people who continue to respond like Jesus.  They put their trust in the Word of God and its promises.  No doubt Satan is tempting them also, but they get the power to resist.  

The final stage of the journey is when the devil left Jesus and angels came and looked after him.  This is the moment when someone who has remained faithful through a long temptation experiences the love and care of God to whom she or he has been faithful.  And we could ask ourselves: Where are the angels that God sends to look after his faithful ones?  Are they our parents, our teachers, our friends, those who really love us?  In each of our lives Lent can be the start of this second journey.  

It is a time to regain the freedom of my tongue, to praise God and stop bad-mouthing others.  It can be a time to tame my appetite for food, sex, drink, sleep or whatever I feel has too much of a hold on me.

I hope that your Lent, while it might be tough, may be good and challenging and filled with grace.  And if your enthusiasm wanes, have the courage to pick yourself up off the floor and start again.

Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Good News.  That is our intention this Lent.  It also happens to be God’s intention and together we can form a powerful combination.


I am very pleased to be able to celebrate this Mass of Ash Wednesday with you today.  I welcome you all, but especially, I welcome Rev Sandie Prichnell.  It is good for us to be here together as we begin the great season of Lent.

I also rejoice to celebrate this Mass with Fr Clem McManus and I wish him well as Catholic Chaplain of this illustrious Institute of Technology.  Fr Clem has two great advantages going for him.  He is a Dundalk man and he is a Redemptorist.  

The Redemptorists were founded to give glory to God mainly by preaching the mercy of God and celebrating the forgiveness of God in the sacrament of Penance.

We begin Lent, with the words of the Prophet Joel thundering in our ears: “Come back to me with all your heart, fasting, weeping, mourning.  Let your hearts be broken, not your garments torn, turn to the Lord again and say, ‘Spare your people, Lord.’ ”