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Ash Wednesday: God’s invitation to each of us today is ‘Return to me’

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People attend Ash Wednesday Mass at St. Aloysius Church in Detroit Feb. 17, 2021, amid the coronavirus pandemic. On Ash Wednesday, as we receive that blackened cross on our foreheads, we hear: "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return." (CNS photo/Valaurian Waller, Detroit Catholic)

I spotted him sitting there as I hurried across the street, his head nodding from exhaustion and his light jacket doing little to shelter him from the biting cold.

I nearly passed right by, as I almost always do, but I felt an urge that I just couldn’t shake: Talk to him. So I crouched down till we were face-to-face.

“Excuse me, can I get you something? A coffee or anything?” I asked. His head snapped up and I motioned to the bagel shop he was sitting near.

“Oh, yes! A bacon, egg and cheese on an everything bagel, please.”

“Of course. I’m Emma, what’s your name?”

“Steve,” he replied, as he reached out his hand to shake mine.

I soon delivered his sandwich, we chatted for a bit and I went on my way.

My brief encounter with Steve has been echoing in my mind ever since. There he was, frigid and spent as he sat on the concrete, a humble cardboard sign in his hands and an empty paper cup before him.

He was fighting to stay awake, and I wondered how long it had been since he had gotten a full night’s sleep.

Three things stand out to me: He knew exactly what he wanted, right away. He wasn’t afraid, ashamed or embarrassed to ask for it. And he expected, in full confidence, that he would receive it.

We have so much to learn from the poor.

God’s invitation to each of us today is this: Return to me. “Even now,” he urges, “return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning. Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God” (Jl 2:12-13).

I suppose there are as many ways to return to God as there are people on this earth, but I would propose just one: Let us recognize that we poor in spirit.

“Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb,” cries Job, faced with crippling loss, “and naked shall I go back there” (Jb 1:21). We’ll hear that message echoed this Ash Wednesday as we receive that blackened cross on our foreheads: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Homeless men in 2019 are seen under a bridge on Christmas Day in Austin, Texas. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

We each came into the world entirely poor, and we will return to our Maker just so. We may not be sitting on the sidewalk begging, struggling to stay alive. But are we not, deep down, just as poor as Steve himself?

Are we not just as dependent, just as much at the mercy of God to meet our every need? Our bank accounts, social standing and accomplishments can blind us to the unmistakable reality of our own poverty. Lent is a good time to remember that everything we have is a gift, and nothing, in the end, belongs to us.

In returning to our poverty this Lent — or rather, remembering our poverty — we can confront the void that only God can fill.

How much more does God long to bestow on us who are closed off with clenched fists and stubborn pride?

How much more will he give to one who is aware of their weakness and need, eager to receive, than one who claims self-sufficiency and success?

How much more room in our hearts will there be if we get in touch with that ache to be known, loved and cared for?

There is so much more in store for us.

If we remember that we are poor, we can sit in humble expectation, the longing of our hearts bursting forth from silent contemplation.

We can look up with a ready answer, full of childlike expectation, when God asks of us, “What do you want?” We can be ready to receive with joy and gratitude when God opens wide his hand to satisfy our desire.

This Lent, let us not fear our own poverty, but rather embrace it. For the most glorious riches await us.

By Emma Dickinson, Catholic News Service

Emma Dickinson grew up in the suburbs of Washington, studied English literature at the University of Pittsburgh and now lives in Philadelphia. She blogs at www.emmabdickinson.com.