“Orienting Our Lives Toward the Lord, in Order to Rise with Him” (Leer en español)


Lent reminds us that there is hope, hope when the ashes represent, not our destruction at the end of our life, but the destruction of sin in our life so that death will not be the end, but the door to eternal life. 

Homily, 1st Sunday of Lent, Year “B”


The Gospel reading for this first Sunday of Lent records for us the first words out of our Lord’s mouth when he began his public preaching.  The words should sound familiar to us as we just heard them spoken when ashes were imposed on our heads last Wednesday: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

Turning Toward the Lord

Repentance is the first step on the path to what this season of Lent is all about: conversion.  The word literally means “to turn around”: that is to say, Lent is a time when we are called to turn our lives around toward the Lord; all our life should be oriented toward Him.  Which brings us back to repentance.  It is precisely by repenting that we turn our lives around back toward the Lord: having sorrow for our sins; contrition, which means the realization that we have offended God and so deserve His punishment but most of all we are sorry because we have failed to love God Who loves us and deserves all of our love; it means begging Him for forgiveness.  These forty days of Lent serve as a reminder to us of how our whole life, every day of the year and every day of our lives, is to be lived: oriented toward the Lord.

We also have a reminder of this in the way that we celebrate our Mass today.  Beginning today we are returning to the more ancient orientation for celebrating the sacrifice of the Mass, with priest and people facing in the same direction.  When some sixty years ago parishes began to celebrate Mass with the priest facing the people, it was out of a desire to engage the people in full participation in praying the Mass together with the priest.  But the Church never lost the sense of priest and people praying together facing in the same direction, that is, facing toward the east, and has always allowed for and envisioned this orientation even though it is now much more common for the priest to stand facing the people, which is also allowed.  From the earliest times in the Church, though, Christians prayed facing east.

Pope Benedict XVI taught us that so ingrained was this eastward orientation for prayer in the ancient Christian mind that, in the house churches of the early Christian communities, the people would place a cross on the east wall of the room so they would know which direction to face for prayer.  Why, though, is the east so important?

The sun rises in the east; the east is the origin of light.  It serves, then, as a reminder to us of Christ rising from the dead, who dispels the darkness of sin and death and enlightens us to see spiritual realities through the light of faith.  Being the source of light, the east also symbolizes paradise: the Book of Genesis tells us that when God created the man and woman and placed them in a garden, He located the garden in the east. 

In biblical times gardens held much more significance than simply places that were pleasurable for leisure and a place to exercise a hobby.  Rather, they were enclosures in which there were paths winding in and out among shade and fruit trees, canals of running water, fountains, sweet-smelling herbs, aromatic blossoms and convenient arbors in which to sit and enjoy the effect.  They thereby became places to escape the dry, hot desert and enjoy relief in the shade, with air laden with the ethereal perfumes of fruits and flowers, accompanied by the music of running water, a couch on which to sit or recline.  For the people of that time and place, gardens were the closest thing possible to paradise on this side of eternity.  And they were also considered places for love and intimacy, where one could be closest to God.  The garden, therefore, became a symbol of paradise, of the life of heaven.

Being the source of light and a reminder of the life of heaven, the east symbolizes for us the place from which Christ will come to meet us.  Pope Benedict XVI also taught us about this.  He says: “Praying toward the east means going to meet the coming Christ.  The liturgy, turned toward the east, effects entry, so to speak, into the procession of history toward the future, the New Heaven and the New Earth, which we encounter in Christ.”

Dying and Rising

Of course, to re-orient our lives toward the Lord so that we are ready to welcome him when he comes involves much more than simply standing facing a certain direction.  That is why the Church gives us the gift of the season of Lent.  There can be no more appropriate way for us to begin this season than by the imposition of ashes on our heads.  Ashes have been a sign of sorrow for sin and repentance from biblical times to today.  Think about what ash means: it is a sign that all has been destroyed, for after a fire there is nothing left but ash.  This means that Lent involves a certain destruction, but a destruction that enables us to be rebuilt into Christ’s image.  For without clinging to Christ in this life, our death will mean the destruction emblematic of that which is signified by ash, or, as the other formula for the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday has it, dust – a reference to our beginning and end: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Lent reminds us that there is hope, hope when the ashes represent, not our destruction at the end of our life, but the destruction of sin in our life so that death will not be the end, but the door to eternal life.  Pope Francis spoke about this significance of ashes in his homily for Ash Wednesday:

The ashes placed on our head invite us to rediscover the secret of life.  They tell us that as long as we continue to shield our hearts and hide ourselves behind a mask, to appear invincible, we will be empty and arid within.  When, on the other hand, we have the courage to bow our heads in order to look within, we will discover the presence of God who loves us and has always loved us.

“[T]he courage to bow our heads in order to look within”: this is the purpose of the three-fold practices of Lent we also heard about on Ash Wednesday, in the Gospel for that day: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.  These are the three hallmarks of the Christian life and so are not confined to Lent.  But we give them a special focus during these forty days in order to sharpen our sensitivity to the importance they have for us to attain spiritual excellence: ensuring that we spend some time every day in prayer; observing penitential disciplines and especially the sacrament of Penance; and generosity with our time, talent and treasure to come to the aid of those the poor, the vulnerable, and all those in need of Christ’s life-giving love.  The whole point of it is for us to learn how to share, to be generous, and that requires a certain death, death to our selfishness.  But this is the path to communion, opening us up to the encounter with the other that ultimately leads to the encounter with the Other, the One who made us and “Who loves us and has always loved us.”


And so we pay heed to the call to return to the Lord, to reorient our lives toward Him.  Pope Francis also spoke about this in his homily at Mass a few days ago on Ash Wednesday.  I can do no better than to conclude with the words with which he concluded that homily:

Let us return, brothers and sisters.  Let us return to God with all our heart.  During these weeks of Lent, let us make space for the prayer of silent adoration, in which we experience the presence of the Lord, like Moses, like Elijah, like Mary, like Jesus.  Have we noticed that we have lost the sense of worship?  Let us return to worship.  Let us lend the ear of our hearts to the One who, in silence, wants to say to us: ‘I am your God – the God of mercy and compassion, the God of pardon and love, the God of tenderness and care.’