As a child, I always loved Ash Wednesday. For some reason, I wasn’t embarrassed or ashamed to go out in public with ashes in the form of a cross on my forehead, but I’m guessing it’s at least partially because I attended Catholic grade school. So we all had ashes on our foreheads! But more than that, our entire family would attend Ash Wednesday Mass together, followed by a meal out somewhere to get fish and chips. There was a sense of solidarity as we stood in the long lines behind others whose foreheads displayed the ashes, too, so it never occurred to me to feel strangely or as an outlier in this world.
Living in the community where we are currently settled allows a Catholic to, at times, stick out like a sore thumb, because we are somewhat of a rarity in this area more heavily populated with various denominations of Anabaptists. So one does come to be more cognizant of the badge of ashes that we wear this time of year when so few others do, as well. It’s almost as if you are marked in some way, set apart, though I dislike the consideration of standing out for all to see. Yet that is exactly what we are called to do – stand out – as Catholic-Christians. What better time of year to enter into that realm of spiritual pruning and eventually conversion than to be reminded of who we are as we receive the ashes on our foreheads today? I pray we will proudly wear them all day long instead of quickly wiping or washing them off. I remember some of my grade school classmates would attempt to lessen the blow on their consciences by only slightly smearing the ashes so that they weren’t as visible to others; somehow, they rationalized, this wasn’t as bad as completely wiping them off.
I beg to differ, however. We aren’t called to be a lukewarm people; Jesus Himself said He preferred that we are either hot or cold. I think that is why, though I disagree wholeheartedly with them, I respect those who claim agnosticism, atheism or even deism – because they know where they stand. Unlike most of the populous who would rather remain nominal Christians, at least the a-religious of our society are the cold about whom Jesus spoke, and I believe they have a good chance of becoming converts due to their fervor and interminable search for truth.
But as Lent begins, we are all called and commissioned by Christ to be the hot of which He spoke – the souls “on fire” with zeal and love for Him, to become more. This does not necessarily mean that we are asked to do more, only that we grow closer in becoming “the best version of ourselves,” to use a Matthew Kelly description. Often that means doing less, so that we can simplify our lives and thus sweep out the cobwebs in our hearts and souls. In our modern world, everyone seems caught in the frenzy of technology – so much so, in fact, that most of us could not give a valid answer as to how we could even live without the Internet or cell phones, at the very least! Of course, these seem to be the “basics” these days, though I recall only fifteen years ago (when cell phones and home Internet were still very much in their infancy) that we all somehow knew how to survive – and often thrive!
Americans today are experiencing higher-than-ever incidents of depression, anxiety, insomnia, and stress. Why is that? It seems that so many of us spend inordinate amounts of time trying to keep up with the frenetic pace of life, which often includes the easy and instant communication that the Internet and cell phones offer us. And yet in communicating, we have somehow lost a way to connect, to relate, to truly love. It is all too convenient to distance ourselves from true human emotion, especially suffering and anguish of the lonely or lost or oppressed, when we limit our ways of interacting with others to the reduction of a computer, a mere machine.
Ashes remind us of the paradox of “dying to self” so that we may also “rise with Christ.” They are an outward sign pointing to our own Calvary, our spiritual journey to the Cross. They tell a story – “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return” – and thus summon us towards greater humility, to ponder our mortality as well as what is truly eternal – the soul.
There are lyrics from two songs that have been repeating in my mind these days, lingering somewhere between my intellect and will, my mind and my heart. Both are by Christian musical artists; one is from the song “Broken Hallelujah” by the Afters and the other is an excerpt from “Worn” by Tenth Avenue North.
The lyric from “Broken Hallelujah” is as follows: “Even though I don’t know what your plan is, I know You’re making beauty from these ashes.” And the line from “Worn” that stands out to me lately is: “I wanna know a song can rise from the ashes of a broken life and all that’s dead inside can be reborn, ’cause I’m worn.” To me, both songs are beautiful prayers, because they are lamentations of a soul that is broken, weary and has been truly humbled in both acknowledging its weakness as well as pleading for the Love and Mercy of our Heavenly Father. They are perfect musical tokens of this beautiful season upon which we enter today – the season of penitence, pruning and purgation, of course, but also the season of great hope and metanoia, or profound transformation/conversion.
Let us remember that God takes the ashes of our sins, our weaknesses and failures and creates a masterpiece from His love. Though ashes are often discarded, as we, too, believe our lives and souls are disposable due to our shame, let us be reminded that ashes do have a purpose, one of which is to actually enrich and restore life! When adding ashes to tomato plants, the plants become more robust and produce more fruit. How’s that for an oxymoron for you? Ashes, though considered dirty, are also used to make lye soap, which we are well aware actually cleans the body. So here are two perfect metaphors for ashes (the dirty soul in need of redemption) and their uses once we offer ourselves entirely to God’s love and care (“bearing fruit that will last” and a clean slate, or soul).
My prayer is that Lent will not just be an annual event or time of year for you, but rather that it will be a catalyst of conversion – ongoing transformation – in the journey of your life. May it be a beginning, a time of starting over again or cleaning up your life, but may it not end on Good Friday, and then on Easter Sunday your life resumes to its normal comfort zone. Instead, I pray that this Lent is different than any other for you and for me, in that we carry with us the lessons learned and become better versions of the unique souls God created us to become. It is possible to make a difference in this world, no matter how small, and may it begin with the humility that is required of us from Ash Wednesday to the end of our days on earth.