Reconciliation is most pressing need
As we start Lent in this Jubilee Year 2000, there is nothing more obvious or pressing than the great need for reconciliation. Almost every day you hear of family break-ups, problems in the peace process, anger and violence between those who had been friends. Reconciliation with God and reconciliation with one another are urgent, and only the gift of forgiveness has the power to achieve it.
There is a decline in reverence for God and a loss of respect for the way of life to which he has called us. Although we have never had so much, there is a new experience of wanting more and more and it easily becomes experience of an emptiness that cannot be filled.
We are in danger of giving in to greed and finding disillusionment. In addition, revelations of scandal in both church and State seem endless. We need to recover those deeper and lasting values that give authentic meaning to life.
It is easy to blame others for our predicament and to make little of what we have done wrong in our own lives, especially if it seems trivial by comparison with what others have done. But, during Lent, the church invites us to enter honestly into our hearts, to own up to our own sinful ways and to seek the grace of renewal through God's forgiveness and a willingness to forgive one another.
In this jubilee year of reconciliation and forgiveness God opens his arms of compassion and mercy. He knows our weakness and the pressures of life in our world today. He gives us the proof of his love in the gift of his only son. The coming of his son is the reason for our jubilee celebration. "God loved the world so much that he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life" (John 3:16).
Instead of keeping his distance from the world of sinners, God turned towards us in compassion. Even though he knew that the world would reject his gift - that it would persecute his son, condemn him to death and nail him to a cross - he did not refuse that gift.
When sinners condemned his son, the father stayed his hand and refrained from coming to his rescue. Surely we must be amazed that the God who loves his son as his own very life should allow him to die for us in agony and shame on the cross.
But, knowing full well what was going to happen, the father made us the gift of his son and nothing could make him take back the gift he had made. Even at so terrible a cost to his son, he was not prepared to abandon us. He allowed our sins to reveal their malice in that assault on his son.
In raising his son from death, the father at the same time showed his love for his son, condemned the sins of the world and announced his forgiveness. The risen Lord is the voice of the father telling us he forgives us, that he wants us to turn back to him and to be renewed in our hearts.
This is not just something between me and God. The role of the church is crucial. The forgiveness of our sins unites us to Christ in the church: he is the head, the church is his body. And so our reconciliation with God is the work of Christ in and through the church. Our first forgiveness in baptism makes us members of the church. In the sacrament of reconciliation we receive the forgiveness we need for the sins we commit in the course of our Christian lives.
There is a pivotal aspect of all this, which I want to stress. In seeking forgiveness we must always be ready to forgive. As members of the church, all the good we do benefits our brothers and sisters; for the church is a body and the health of the members enables the church to flourish. But by our sins we wound the church; we wound the body of Christ.
And so, as members of the body of Christ, not only have we wounded the body of Christ, we also suffer on account of the sins of our brothers and sisters. The innocent Christ accepted in generous forgiveness the suffering caused by all our sins. We, who have sinned ourselves, must follow him by accepting in forgiveness the suffering caused by our brothers and sisters.
In saying this, I am appealing for reconciliation within the church. This can only come through the generosity of forgiveness. We have all experienced the suffering caused by scandalous behaviour, and many have been dissatisfied with the way church leaders have dealt with it.
In different ways, members of the church have been hurt by misunderstanding, harshness, intolerance, insensitivity at moments of personal anxiety or when feelings were raw. The church is like a family where the members love one another, but may also get on one another's nerves; there is constant need of reconciliation and forgiveness. We must not allow all this create divisions between us.
Today, in taking the ashes, I confess that I myself am a sinner in need of the mercy of God and I ask forgiveness of my brothers and sisters for the ways in which I have caused them hurt. I accept the sufferings that the scandals have brought me and I make that part of my Lenten penance. Will you do the same and allow the spirit of forgiveness to work its healing influence amongst us?
The Ash Wednesday invitation, in the words of St Paul, is "Be reconciled to God". This is impossible unless we imitate the generosity of Christ's forgiveness and become reconciled to one another.