February 14: Marks of Distinction (Ash Wednesday B)

“We are ambassadors for Christ as if God were appealing through us…. Now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” Cor. 5:20-6:2.

We begin Lent this Wednesday in February. It’s the odd occurrence when Ash Wednesday coincides with Valentine’s Day. The last time this occurred was in 1945, a very long time ago.

Ash Wednesday is a movable religious feast-day, forty-days before Easter Sunday, whereas February 14th — Saint Valentine’s Day has become a secular holiday. I’ll talk briefly about Valentine’s Day at the end of Mass.

Meanwhile, listen to the words of Saint Paul, who tells us that as Christians, we are to be “ambassadors for Christ” in our acts of faith, hope, and love.

And how this particular Lenten season – begun with burnt ashes, are a mark of distinction — placed on our foreheads. These ashes emphasize our identity on this journey of faith as we are called to an “invisible kingdom of the heart.”

These are marks of distinction that can define people’s lives.

Here’s just one example that came by way of an experience of mine.

Ten years ago or so, I went to a charity benefit that supported college scholarship in San Francisco. I was there to represent Saint Mary’s College and several of my students who had received scholarship awards, a mark of distinction for our students.

It was an assembly of Bay Area corporate executives, college teachers and administrators, donors, and the fortunate students who had received these awards.

As is custom, there was a head table with distinguished people and a list of speakers. We had begun eating our lunch, when the Master of Ceremonies, came to the microphone to announce that one of the speakers had just arrived and then asked us to stand and welcome this guest.

In a loud and excited voice, the MC shouted: “Ladies and Gentleman, I’m delighted to welcome to the head table, that world-famous athlete and resident of Marin County, please welcome Jonny Moseley. Yes, Jonny Moseley! Let’s hear it for Jonny Moseley!”

The people in the hotel dining hall stood and broke into thunderous applause.

Of course, I stood, clapped my hands — but had no clue of who this Jonny Moseley might be?

Was he a professional basketball player (too short) or maybe a college quarterback (too slight of build)? So I asked someone at our table to let me in on the secret of this young man’s fame?

Then, I found out from the person next to me that Jonny Moseley had won the Gold Medal at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics in Japan. His expertise was “freestyle skiing,” the kind of skiing that combines aerial skills of mogul, cross, half-pipe, and downhill skiing.


With the Winter Olympics currently going on in Korea at the moment, you may see this type of competition.

I have to admit, as someone who does not ski, nor would ever want to slide down a slope, let alone do aerial stunts — this not precisely my kind of sport. It’s very dangerous!

What struck me as odd, however, was that this Gold Medal of his, and those of so many other Olympians that we will see in these coming days, are marks of distinction that become permanent markers on a person’s life.

Jonny Moseley and so many others – have found their fame, fortunes and personal identity in this one extraordinary experience that permits them the opportunity to speak at graduations, or become the subject of stories on ESPN, and the ability to promote a product or cause in advertisements and television commercials.

So what mark of distinction might honor your life?

Most of us will not be known for gold, silver, or bronze medals, but rather the character of our lives, a mark that sometimes goes unnoticed, as we are members of the “invisible kingdom of the heart.”

Notice how in Matthew’s gospel today, we hear Jesus advise: “Take care not to perform righteous deeds so that people may see them…. (and) your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”

We begin this journey at baptism, and this is a distinctive and permanent marker on how we might live our lives, our spiritual lives.

Like Olympic athletes, “life in the spirit” also requires more than just talent or skill, it also requires hours of practice and God’s grace.

Lent is a time to grow into a “big person,” not in size or weight but in the spirit of generosity, mercy, and grace.

So in this time of prayer, fasting, and service to others, we have a starting point, a way to measure ourselves, and prepare ourselves for life’s task of faith, hope, and love, if we are to be ambassadors for Christ.

These ashes we receive today are marks of distinction, again not gold, silver, or bronze. These ashes remind us of how passing this time of ours may be. Fully knowing that this “invisible kingdom of the heart” identifies us as a person who takes on the work of the Lord. His healing actions in our lives help us join a broader community of those who celebrate his redemptive powers.

We are ambassadors for Christ, and now, this Lent is the acceptable time, these days of salvation.

Rosary Chapel, Santa Catalina School, Monterey, CA.

This homily was much helped from a sermon by Father Kevin Kilgore of Garfield, N.J.




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