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A lesson from the Oscars for Ash Wednesday

Frazer Harrison/GettyImages Northd America/AFP

Before we become ashes, we are sparks of potential, meant to set the world on fire, writes Deacon Greg Kandra

Sunday night at the Oscars, one of the winners gave a powerful testimony about life—and, whether she realized it or not, she also offered Christians everywhere a great perspective on Lent.

Viola Davis, winning the award for Best Supporting Actress, began her acceptance speech with these words:
“You know,” she said, “there’s one place that all the people with the greatest potential are gathered. One place, and that’s the graveyard.”

We are here this morning, in part, to admit that, to accept that, to reflect that—and to make that matter.

When we receive those ashes on our brows, we say to ourselves and to the world: “One day, I will be nothing but dust. But until that day, I want to fulfill my potential—as a Catholic Christian and as a child of God.”

So we take these 40 days to repent, to reflect, and to turn back to the Gospel. We remember what we are made of—and what we were made to become.

The great St. Catherine of Siena once said famously, “If you become what you were meant to be, you will set the world on fire.”

What are we meant to be?

For each of us, the answer is the same. We are meant to be saints.

That is God’s greatest desire for every one of us gathered here. And part of Lent’s purpose is for us to strive to fulfill that desire—and fulfill our potential.

The ashes remind us that we may be burned out, but we are not burned up. There is a fire within us.

At our baptism, we received a lit candle with the words, “Receive the light of Christ.” This is a good moment for us to ask ourselves: what became of that light?

Have we become cold? Indifferent? Self-involved?

What can we do to rekindle the spark?

Most of us know that Lent calls on us during these 40 days to fast, to give alms, to pray. Is that enough? We fast from food—but maybe we should try also to fast from cruelty and selfishness and snark. Avoid the temptation to mock, or criticize, or judge.

We give alms to the poor—but let’s also give alms of compassion to those who are poor in heart. Let us give ourselves and our time to those who lack time. Let’s give dignity and respect to those who are poor in self-esteem.

We pray for those who are close to us. But let’s pray for those who aren’t. Pray for those souls in purgatory who are forgotten. Pray for those souls among us who are lost. Pray for our president and our government and the news media.

During Lent, every Friday in this church, we pray the Stations of the Cross. So many of us are walking our own journey to Calvary—falling, rising, falling again. How many here feel they are being condemned and judged, stripped of security or dignity? How many feel they are being nailed to crosses of injustice or addiction or hardship or hate? Walk the Stations with them. Pray with them. Pray for them.

And pray that all of us may be more than mere dust. We heard the words of the psalmist just a few moments ago: “A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me.”

Pray that we may be clean, steadfast, renewed.

It begins here. It begins now.

“You know,” Viola Davis said, “there’s one place that all the people with the greatest potential are gathered. One place, and that’s the graveyard.”

But then, it will be too late. Let’s not wait any longer. These ashes we are about to receive proclaim to the world that we have work to do—to fulfill our great potential in the eyes of God, and set the world on fire.

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