Approach Lent with wholehearted commitment, encouraged Cardinal Wilton Gregory at Ash Wednesday Mass, so that God may refashion you into the person God would have you be. As at churches throughout the world, the Mass was non-traditional in how ashes were distributed, in keeping with pandemic-required adaptations.

“Most people begin Lent with the age-old question of what are they going to give up for Lent,” the cardinal said in his homily at the Feb. 17 Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington. “The simple answer that we must all accept is that for this Lent I’m going to give up my too frequently half-hearted self so that God can refashion me into a new person at Easter – the person that God wants and intends me to be.”

Following the homily, Cardinal Gregory and other priests and lay ministers distributed ashes, using the adaptation of sprinkling ashes atop people’s heads, to avoid touching anyone. People at the Mass wore face masks and sat at social distances in pews, in accord with coronavirus safety precautions. Others followed the Mass on a YouTube livestream.

Traditional Ash Wednesday readings and hymns called people to “take care not to perform righteous deeds so that others may see them,” and “when you fast, do not look gloomy, like hypocrites …. Do not appear to be fasting except to your Father.” The readings asked God to be merciful to sinners and implored Christ’s followers to “not receive the grace of God in vain.”

In his homily, Cardinal Gregory observed that the word “wholehearted” is generally intended to indicate complete seriousness. “It is also a fundamental word for the season of Lent … (God asks us to) return to me with your whole heart. Lent is a season that invites us to take much more seriously our relationship with God and with other people.  Lent should never be a partial activity – since it always demands that we engage our entire person in the activities that Lent requires – prayer, fasting, and works of charity – which are intended to rouse everything that is within us.”

Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory preaches his homily and elevates the Eucharist at a Feb. 17 Ash Wednesday Mass at St. Matthew's Cathedral. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

The traditional activities of Lent -- prayer, fasting and works of charity -- while individually good endeavors, ideally are undertaken together, he said, “because they all coalesce in defining who we are before God and each other.”  

“Fasting is more than dieting, prayer is more than thinking about or even talking to God, and acts of charity are more than giving from your surplus,” Cardinal Gregory continued. “These activities are positive when taken individually, but when they are combined in the Lenten journey, they transform us in ways that may even defy our ability to grasp. Lent is a time when we are being refashioned and recreated, as God would have us be.”

He said that everyone wants such a transformation, “not because we are necessarily profoundly evil, utterly wicked, or somehow depraved, but because we are not yet the God-like creatures that we were intended to be – we are half-hearted in so many ways. Moreover, Lent is a time to re-form ourselves by the only successful path that we know of and that is through God’s help and with His grace.”

People pray during the Feb. 17 Ash Wednesday Mass at St. Matthew's Cathedral. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)