Who had a chance to meet the angel Michael when he visited our parish? I call him an angel, but many might call him a dirt-covered homeless person.
In August 2010, a homeless man in a wheelchair interrupted Father Hersey’s homily with cries of, “I’m dying and I need help.”
Did you see him? Did you meet him? Do you remember him?
My wife Mary and I were blessed to spend several hours with Michael that night and what we learned changed me forever -- what we learned about him and what we learned about the resources available for people in desperate need of help.
Michael was beaten severely a few nights before coming to our Saturday evening Mass looking for someone to help lift him out of the depths of his despair.
Michael lost everything when he was beaten up; his last few possessions, his ID, his backpack, EVERYTHING! He came to us with only the clothes on his back and his wheelchair.
Michael was a soldier in Vietnam. He lost his leg in battle. Homecoming was difficult for him. He fell into drink and drugs to ease the pain of what he experienced over there; the horrors, horrors unimaginable.
Did you know that over a quarter of the homeless population in the U.S. is made up of veterans? Experts say this number will grow dramatically in the years ahead as women and men return broken from multiple tours of duty to Iraq and Afghanistan, and with few resources to help them to come home physically, mentally and spiritually.
So, why do I bring this up? The Ash you will wear on your forehead today is the same “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” covering our angel Michael from head-to-toe. In the Hebrew Bible, it's called “adamah (ad•ä•mä'),” or holy dirt. We will wear this holy dirt today to show we are disciples of Christ.
But it is not enough to wear the ashes. Not in God’s eyes. He expects more of us. Much more.
When the prophets like Joel in our first reading were faced with calamity (war, violence, bloodshed), they asked God for forgiveness and repented their sins. What sins were they usually repenting? Not loving God with all their hearts and minds. Not loving thy neighbor as thy self. Not taking care of the poorest and most marginalized people in their society. Not loving the Michael’s of their world.
How do WE show repentance to God? By wearing ashes? By being here at Church? No, God calls us to a deeper level of repentance. He calls us to a conversion of heart and soul to see the world as He sees it. As Christ saw it.
If Christ encountered Michael, I think we all know what he would do. He would embrace him. He would wipe away all his tears. He would feed and clothe him. He would wash him clean of the dirt and ashes that covered him. He would call him to repent his sins. That’s what Christ would do. He asks that we do the same.
“Whatever you DID NOT do for the least of these brothers and sisters, you DID NOT do for me.” Christ’s words in Matthew’s Gospel challenge each of us to show we are Christians by our love.
God calls us all during Lent to “return to me with your whole heart.” As the Prophet Joel wrote, “Blow a trumpet in Zion! Proclaim a fast, call an assembly; gather the people, notify the congregation. Assemble the elders, gather the children…”
And what would Christ say once we are gathered? Pray, Fast, and Give Alms… or better put in today’s words… share what you have with others. “But do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others.” Matthew made that clear in our Gospel reading.
So, how do we give alms and not let “the left hand know what the right is doing?” By leaving it to the children. By tapping into the pure, innocent hearts of every child in this congregation and ask them join in an effort to help the “least of our brothers and sisters.” To help Michael.
In the coming weeks, baskets will appear below the altars at both Immaculate Conception and Our Lady of Perpetual Help. These baskets are called “Giving Baskets” and every time we gather for Mass, we will ask our children (and others) to help fill these baskets with food for the needy of our community. As the collection is going around, our children will show us how to give alms in powerful and meaningful ways.
The “Giving Baskets” are the brainchild of the Social Action Commission at Immaculate Conception and Our Lady of Perpetual Help. The idea came out of a plea heard from our brothers and sisters at the parish’s two food banks. They say the need for food donations is greater than ever. But giving is down due to the bad economy.
No matter how challenged our personal situations, I’m sure we can each find the resources for a can or two of food a week that will help one of our “least sisters or brothers.”
As St. Paul put it so perfectly in the second reading, “Working together, then, we appeal to you NOT to receive the grace of God in vain.”
The ash we wear today will be a symbol of our heart’s conversion and our repentance for not always seeing the needs in our community -- for not always seeing Michael.
The alms our families will give, with the help of our children, will be a powerful symbol that we hear God’s message, Christ’s message, and are ready to answer His call.