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The Hopeful Message of Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday: 2-17-21

The celebration of Ash Wednesday is something of a curiosity. Within Christian traditions which celebrate holy days of obligation such as Catholicism, Ash Wednesday is not counted among them, as for instance, Sunday Masses are. Yet any regularly practicing Catholic can testify that the church tends to be unusually full on Ash Wednesday. Studies by the Pew Research Center statistically confirm this. For instance, Google searches for “church” go up dramatically during the week of Ash Wednesday (third only to Christmas and Easter) (Pew Research Center, Noble Kuriakose, “When Easter and Christmas near, more Americans search online for ‘church’”). Additional surveys find that those who Pew refers to as “cultural Catholics” participate in Lenten observances and practices at an unusually high rate (Pew Research Center, Benjamin Wormald, “Participation in Catholic Rites and Observances”). This would seem to be confirmed, at least in part, by the increased popularity of “drive-through” ash services, which only adds another level of ironic oddity to the whole picture.

The strange nature of this phenomenon deepens when we consider the meaning of Ash Wednesday vis a vis the values of secular culture. Ash Wednesday, of course, marks the beginning of the forty-day Season of Lent. A period classically characterized by the increased attention to and practice of various forms of austerity whether at the direction of the Church or self-imposed, such as abstinence, fasting and whatever individuals choose to “give-up” for these forty days. In an increasingly secular culture that could be characterized as almost anything but austere, is obsessed with cleanliness and the avoidance of death and the signs thereof at all costs, and would ostensibly have little or nothing to do with traditional religious practices, people flock to places where they can commemorate the beginning of an ascetical season by having ashes put on them. What gives? I would suggest that this is a sign of great hope that can be unpacked by reflecting on the meaning of ashes. In searching out the opportunity to have ashes traced on their foreheads, or, having ashes sprinkled on their heads this year amidst the pandemic, people are recognizing several deep and interconnected truths about our situation: life is precarious, we are not all we have been created to be, and that for all the good things this world offers, it remains deeply unsatisfying.

The precarious nature of life is something that often makes itself known in unavoidable and sometimes devastating ways. The death of a loved one whether expected or not is perhaps the best and most intense example of this. However, this quality of human life is readily seen in a multitude ways. Human beings are fragile creatures, experiencing changes of emotion, attitude, and health over the course of time and in many cases from minute to minute. These changes can either be for the worse or for the better. However, the vicissitudes of life that so often prompt or even demand these changes can make life deeply unsettling, especially when these changes so often seem far out of our control and come during moments of crisis (see Warren S. Brown and Brad D. Strawn, The Physical Nature of Christian Life, 76). The greatest minds of the Christian Tradition have attended carefully to this quality of human life asking why this is the case. And, knowing that it can be a difficult thing to deal with, offer encouraging words that help us to see that this can be to our benefit. For instance, St. Gregory of Nyssa writes: “Therefore, let no one be grieved if he sees in his nature a penchant for change. Changing in everything for the better, let him exchange ‘glory for glory,’ becoming greater through daily increase, ever perfecting himself, and never arriving too quickly at the limit of perfection. For this is truly perfection: never to stop growing towards what is better and never placing any limit on perfection” (On Perfection). These words from Gregory should be a source of encouragement for us especially during this Season of Lent as we strive for “daily increase” in holiness through works of fasting, almsgiving and prayer.

They also rest on a deep truth taught by the Christian faith that makes ashes a wonderfully appropriate sign to mark the beginning of our journey, for they very discretely signify the beginning. The second story of creation in Genesis describes the creation of the human person in this way: “then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (Gn. 2:7). There is a beautiful truth being communicated to us here and it is a lesson we desperately need to learn again today. Life is a gift. In absolute terms, there is nothing necessary about the fact that we are here. Sure we can scientifically speak about the big bang and the process of evolution that some hypothesize as having elements of necessity. But before all that, on a metaphysical level, Christianity asserts contra the Platonism which it faced at its beginnings that God did not have to create anything at all, that life is a gift, a gift of love. What this means is that if you live and breathe and regardless of your current experience, your life is part of a love story of cosmic proportions.

The problem is from time immemorial we have failed to see the giftedness of our existence. And because the source of life is Love Itself (cf. 1 Jn 4:8), a rejection of this gift is a rejection of love. This is precisely what our first parents succumbed to in the garden. Having been gifted with the entirety of creation and restricted only by one command, our first parents believed the serpent, that voice of the enemy that insinuated that God was holding something back from them (Gn. 3:5). This was a rejection of love that sent shockwaves through creation. Watch the dominoes fall, forming walls of division where there once was unity as they tumble. Adam and Eve together hide from God signifying their separation from Him (Gn. 3:8). When questioned, in a way that set a vicious cycle of finger pointing and self-acquittal that continues to spin out of control and set us at odds with one another to this very day, Adam blames Eve, demonstrating the fact that now the human family was not only divided from God but tragically and necessarily divided in itself (Gn. 3:12). For her part Eve blames the serpent denoting the division that had now been established between the human family and creation (Gn. 3:13). The result is the punishment of separation, pain, toil and death. The final words spoken by God to the human family in this scene in part form the words we hear as we place ashes upon ourselves: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gn. 3:19).

Yet amidst all of this there was hope, even if Adam and Eve could not see it. God had promised the serpent that his time was numbered: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heal” (Gn. 3:15). These prophetic words come true in the Garden of Gethsemane. Confronted by the same enemy of humanity and stared in the face with death, Christ does precisely what our first parents were unwilling to do: He remains obedient and faithful to the Father, and in so doing knowingly sets out upon the road that will lead to Calvary, where He would ultimately overcome the enemy of death. Thus, there is hope for us today. Lent is about following Christ down that road. This is why the Church recommends to us the practice of praying the Way of the Cross during this Season. It helps give direction to our Lenten journey by setting us out on the path to set things right.

We all feel the need for this, don’t we? Lent is unique among the liturgical seasons of the Church in that its message appeals to everyone whether particularly religious or not. We all recognize that something is amiss in our lives, that we are not what we desire to be either collectively or individually. The daily news is abundant proof of the former and the distresses we experience, be they small or great in our lives, proof of the latter. This is why people take to their keyboards and search for “church” in disproportionate numbers during this week, and why so many come out of the woodwork to find themselves in church pews, waiting to have ashes placed upon them.

The Church has a long history of using ashes as a sign of repentance in seeking to re-establish right relationship with God that stretches far back into salvation history. Examples abound in the Old Testament: see the stories of Esther (14:1-3), Job (42:6), and the people of Nineveh in the book of Jonah (3:5-6). In the New Testament we find Jesus referring to the practice in denouncing unrepentant cities: “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes” (Mt. 11:21; cf. Lk. 10:13). In the liturgy of Ash Wednesday we are called to repentance by the Prophet Joel: “Even now, says the Lord, 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. For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment” (Jl. 2:12-13). We respond to this call, in part, in imitating this scriptural practice and placing ashes upon ourselves. If this action is to be authentic, it must be a sign of an interior disposition of the virtue of repentance. Yet this is only be the beginning.

These next forty days ought to be days of intense spiritual training revolving around three forms of spiritual exercise: fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. And let us never put off the ashes we have received, for they signify the very basis, the very soil from which our virtuous acts of fasting, prayer and almsgiving will spring. I am referring to the virtue of humility. Humility gives us the ability to take honest stock of our lives, a grounded view if you will, of our current situation, both personally and communally. Moreover, it resists the temptation which our first parents succumbed to of wanting to make gods of ourselves by placing our own egos at the center of our lives. Instead, humility gives us the ability to at once imitate and participate in the incarnational and self-giving movement of Christ, who although God did not seize at divinity like our first parents, but humbled himself to the point of death on the cross so as to bring us new life (see Phil. 2:6-11). The Fathers of the Church would often say Christ’s descent was our ascent. By living out the virtue of humility we imitate the descent of Christ so as to share in His ascent. We humble ourselves by making our desires take a backseat through fasting, by placing the other before ourselves through almsgiving, and by placing God first in prayer. These actions cultivate the virtues of temperance, justice, and prudence respectively. This is the hoped-for result of our Lenten observances prayed for in the Eucharistic Liturgy of Ash Wednesday: “for through our bodily fasting you restrain our faults, raise up our minds, and bestow both virtue and its rewards, through Christ our Lord” (The Roman Missal, Preface IV for Lent).

My friends, let us begin this season of Lent this Ash Wednesday by taking an honest, humble look at ourselves and the world around us. The benefit of the year that we have just lived through is that if we do this we cannot avoid seeing our frailty and our brokenness that have been so painfully placed before our eyes through the experience of the pandemic and the tensions of the election season that continue to follow us. We need change, that is abundantly clear. Then let us pursue the only course of lasting change. Let us prayerfully follow Christ on the Way of the Cross, striving to cooperate with the fiery grace of the Holy Spirit who can make of us a complete oblation to God the Father in unity with Christ. Ashes are the remains of something that the fire has completely transformed. This Lent, let us resolve to allow the happy fault of Adam to run its course, and cooperate in the Spirit’s transformation of the whole of our lives by growing in the virtues of Christ. So doing not only brings healing to ourselves but through us to the world around us, which are both desperately in need of healing today.

Your servant in Christ,

Tony

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