It was an interview that grabbed headlines all over the world.
In August, Pope Francis granted an interview to a Jesuit priest, Antonio Spadaro, which was translated and published throughout the world. Within hours, media outlets were reporting on it, looking for clues on how the new pope would lead the Church in the coming years.
Father Spadaro began the interview with a simple question, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” You will remember that this was the Holy Father’s name before he became Pope Francis. After a long pause, he answered, “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”
Ash Wednesday is one of the most popular services in the Church year. Even though Catholics are not required to attend Mass today, we come in droves to pray and receive ashes. Many of our Protestant sisters and brothers also observe this day along with us.
Why has it become so popular? Perhaps it is because, like Pope Francis, we all realize in the depth of our beings that we are sinners. In moments of silent honesty, we understand that our lives are not all that God has dreamed they could be. We have not lived up to our God given potential. We have failed to love and show kindness to others. In the depths of our hearts, we are truly sorry.
Most importantly, however, we want to do something about it. We do not take time today to wallow in the guilt of our sinfulness. Rather we gather here today to make a real change, to commit ourselves to making amends. Our celebration today is a reflection of the first reading from the prophet Joel. Like the people of Israel, we have dropped everything to be here, to come into God’s presence and to offer Him our sorrow. Assured of His forgiveness, we promise that we will spend these next forty days in prayer and sacrifice to “rend our hearts” and make them a better reflection of Jesus’ mercy and love.
We are sinners. We have committed sinful acts and our hearts have become hardened because of it. But this celebration today is not about us. Rather, it is about the God who offers us forgiveness. It is about the God who loves us so much that He looks past our weakness and selfishness. It is about our Heavenly Father who stretches His hand out to us just as we are.
Saint Paul in today’s second reading says, “For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” On the cross, Jesus takes our sinfulness and gives us His holiness. He takes our weakness and gives us His strength. He takes our unclean hearts and gives us pure hearts brimming with compassion. He takes the ashes of our burned out consciences and gives us leafy, fruitful branches.
Imagine going to a grocery store that would give you fresh loaves in exchange for stale bread or wine in exchange for vinegar. This is just the marvelous exchange we can expect from Jesus. He takes our sinfulness and offers us His holiness. All we have to do is present ourselves to Him as we are but willing to change, and He will take care of the rest.
In the interview, Pope Francis goes on to say, “I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I accept it in a spirit of penance.” At this Mass today our Heavenly Father offers us His love and mercy. A real change is possible in our lives because He makes it possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Saint Paul encourages us in the second reading, “Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” Marking our foreheads with ashes is a symbolic way of telling God that we are ready to make a change. The forty days of Lent are held out to us as an opportunity to know Jesus in a new and personal way. In a spirit of faith, let us take full advantage of it through prayer and sacrifice.