Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Ash Wednesday: Lent begins

Lent begins today. It's the time to remember not so much our faithlessness, as to be reminded of God's faithfulness. We don't enter into Lent as though Christ never existed. We enter into Lent fully aware that the only begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, was born of the Virgin Mary, lived, loved, taught, suffered and died, was buried, rose again, ascended, and sent his Spirit to be the mode of his presence in and among us until he returns in glory. In other words, Lent, even Ash Wednesday, isn't the time to reflect on our unlovableness, on our infidelity, but on God's love and mercy. God is merciful because God is love.

I appreciated very much Pope Francis' short message for Lent, which I am sure was released awhile back, but I waited until today to read it. As one might expect, given the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, the Holy Father's message is about experiencing God's mercy and then, being filled with mercy, acting mercifully towards others: "God’s mercy transforms human hearts; it enables us, through the experience of a faithful love, to become merciful in turn."

In this year's Lenten message, Pope Francis emphasized inner conversion by means of practicing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. I was struck by the Pontiff's insistence that "The corporal and spiritual works of mercy must never be separated."

We all need both divine and human mercy. As followers of Jesus, who is Divine Mercy incarnate, we are to be agents of mercy. In his message, the Pontiff highlights the fact that the story of salvation is a love story. He even notes that it will culminate in the wedding of Christ, the Bridegroom, and his Bride, the Church. He points out, "This love story culminates in the incarnation of God’s Son. In Christ, the Father pours forth his boundless mercy even to making him 'mercy incarnate'" (Misericordiae Vultus, 8).

I am very ambivalent about Ash Wednesday. I like vexing people, just a bit, by pointing out that it is not even a holy day of obligation. Does that mean I think you shouldn't go to Mass that you shouldn't receive ashes? Heavens no! Go. Receive. Nonetheless, without being too extreme, one must admit that there is a disjunction, perhaps what we might call a dialectical tension, between the very visible smearing of a bold black ashen cross on one's forehead and what Jesus warns his disciples about in our Gospel for Ash Wednesday (Matt 6:1-6.16-18). If nothing else, I hope recognizing this tension gives you something to ponder.

I readily admit that I don't like walking around all day with ashes on my forehead. Since, as a deacon, I have day job, I serve at evening liturgies on Ash Wednesday. My own preferences and oddities aside, I urge you to keep in mind that just as the empirical evidence that Christ is really and truly present in the Eucharistic species is meant to be the lives of those of us who partake, people will not know that we are Christians by the ashes we receive once year and then proudly display - especially when we might use it as an occasion to scoff at the stupidity of those who don't know what it is- but by our love. Without love there is no mercy and without mercy there is no love.


  1. Folks should know that I'm a rotten sinner who's going to die by my life. If we do wear the ashes, let it be the boast Paul spoke of, the boast in Jesus, "our righteousness, holiness and redemption" and that God has taken pity on my nothingness.

  2. I guess if I had to respond in the form of a disputatio, I'd say, anyone who knows me well enough already knows that about me and those who don't aren't likely going to have that conveyed to them by my wearing ashes.

    Of course, I believe there is an attitude of heart appropriate to wearing ashes on one's forehead, one that perhaps I have yet to cultivate. I condemn no one for so doing. May the ashes they wear be indicative of a contrite, yet grateful, heart.

    Prayers for a holy Lent, dear friend. Thanks, as always, for witnessing to me and provoking me.

  3. Yes, to wear ashes is to proclaim one's shame before the world, to bear the cross. And when somebody asks about the ashes instead of mumbling that it's a Catholic thing that we do, we could say it means that I'm a sinner in need of mercy. This is the homily I'd like to hear someday. As a side note, I wiped yesterday because I was going to the doctor's office. There must've been a trace left because the dr (a bit sheepishly) asked if I happened to be fasting. He then told me that a communion wafer should not impact the blood work too much. He then mentioned that at his church, they have the low-gluten hosts (indicating in his discreet way that he's Catholic too).

    1. That would be wonderful. I agree with both. I would add, a sinner who needs mercy AND has found it in the cross of Christ. That is something that appeals to me.

      I often suspect that given the large crowds that show up for Ash Wednesday, we kind of whiff on this. An Ash Wednesday homily should be short and cut to the chase.

  4. While I did come across this until today, well after I composed the above post, it demonstrates what I've known for years, namely that I am a bit of a crypto-Lutheran: Why We Don’t Do Ashes on Ash Wednesday"



Readings: Acts 2:1-11; Ps 104:1.24.29-30.31.34; 1 Cor 12:3b-7.12-13; John 20:19-23 After Easter, Pentecost is the most important observan...