Ash Wednesday

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Homily notes of Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop of Dublin


University College Dublin, 14 February 2018


“The Gospel reading we have just heard is above all about authenticity.   However, you will not find the word authenticity in the text.  It uses a much tougher word, which is about the opposite of being authentic.  It says bluntly, “That is what the hypocrites do”.

“Be careful not to parade your good deeds before men to attract their notice”, the Gospel warns.  Another translation of the original words is even more striking: “Do not make a show of your religion before men”.  The authenticity that we are speaking about is the authenticity of the relationship between our faith and life.   Religious practice that is not authentic is not true religion.

Jesus drew attention to abuses and to practices that had grown up in the contemporary way of life of many Jews of his time, and especially of leaders and others prominent in society.  They liked to have it announced publicly when they had made a substantial charitable gift; they liked to show off their knowledge and piety by suddenly standing up and reciting long prayers; they would make a point of everyone knowing that they were fasting.

These were not outright evil people.  They were men and women doing good things, but their good deeds were rendered valueless because they were turned into some form of self-promotion.  There is something in self-seeking, even through good deeds, which renders our activity and our lives as unauthentic.

This is a norm that applies to us as individuals, but also to a model of society that becomes dominated by self-interest.  It happens in the Church when the Church becomes what Pope Francis calls “auto-referential” or self-centred, rather than a Church that strips itself of what is unauthentic in order to be to be a true witness to Jesus and his mercy.

Goodness needs no publicity campaigns or spin-doctors.  The truth needs no polemics: it needs witnesses to how the truth is lived authentically.

How does the Christian render publicly the goodness that springs from living religious convictions authentically?  Lent can show us the correct direction.  Lent is a time of repentance and conversion.  This is much more than giving things up.  Lent is a time when we challenge many of the ideas and ways of thinking that creep into our life style, at times almost unbeknown to us.  Authenticity does not come automatically.  We have to learn discernment and purification.  We have to acquire through personal discernment the ability to recognise where our values are to be rooted.

University is a place of discernment.  University should be a place where we experience freedom and learn how to live freedom.  University can however be a place where we can easily drift into conformity and trivialisation and follow the crowd.  University has to be rather a place where we learn discernment about the basic things in life and where our academic and professional formation are integrated into the question of who I really want to be.

Discernment requires that we have some moments in which we stand back to look at ourselves.  I need moments to stand back from the crowd and see where I want to be different.

Our Gospel reading already indicates some areas where this integration and discernment might require attention still today.  It challenges us to reflect on authenticity in personal relationships, realising that we cannot utilise or exploit others for our own personal prestige and image.

We have to learn what authenticity means in terms of money and our financial resources.  Catholic social teaching speaks of “a social mortgage on private possession”, a responsibility to manage wealth to enhance the quality of life in the world around us and not simply amass wealth for ourselves.  Prayer, on its part, is not flight from reality but a recognition of how the goodness of creation is a gift from God’s love and how we must protect the integrity of that gift and express our wonder and gratitude to God.

Perhaps the unusual occurrence this year that Ash Wednesday and Saint Valentines’ Day fall on the same day might make us reflect on where we are in the way we live in understanding authenticity in human sexuality and respect in loving relations.

Living our Christian faith publicly in a pluralist and at times heavily-secularised society does not mean wearing demonstrative badges.  Neither does it mean retreating into a secret comfort zone or a cult; it is rather about men and women whose secret goodness and integrity become so authentic that they cannot be hidden.

Lent is an opportunity for us to use the secret arms of prayer, penance and works of charity to renew ourselves in our integrity and to renew what our faith means, in an authenticity of life that makes us more like Christ, who revealed to us who God is by his self-giving love.

Lent offers us a unique possibility to renew our faith and ourselves.  It is an opportunity we should not miss.”


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