Blessing of Ashes
Penance. Suffering. Ashes and dust. It’s that time of liturgical year again. It’s Ash Wednesday. The beginning of Lent. We have a love/hate relationship with this penitential season. We enter into with different levels of commitment. Some of us get pretty creative in our fast and penitential practices to ease into it and slide through. After all, it is innate in us to avoid suffering and seek pleasure. Yet, there is something about the season of Lent that speaks to us on a deeper, more profound level. We NEED it, even if we aren’t sure exactly what to do or how to go about getting the most spiritually out of the season. So, often it stretches before us, six weeks of purple.
So what is the season about? Is it merely to inflict pain and punishment, to make us feel bad about ourselves and our sins? To bring gloom and doom down on us as we are reminded “you are dust, and to dust you shall return”? Certainly if we were a people without faith in a God of mercy and love, without hope for life with Him in heaven, then Lent would indeed be very dark. But we are ultimately an Easter people, a people of joy and hope and love. Nonetheless, to fully live Easter, we must walk through the passion and death of Christ Jesus, precisely because of sin.
In the creation of Adam and Eve, God made man unique. While we have bodies like the animals, we also have a reason and a will – we are rational creatures. And God gave humans a gift – so long as the mind of man remembered who He was (a creation of God) and remained obedient to Him, then the lower powers of man (his bodily senses and passions) would remain subject to his will and death would be foreign to us. But when Adam and Eve saw the forbidden fruit was good for food, pleasing to the eye, and desirable for wisdom, then took the fruit and ate it, they grabbed at God’s place – they rebelled against the order of creation. Now the carnal appetite of humankind rebels against the spirit and death is the result. Our reason is darkened, our bodies and passions often seek to assert themselves against what we otherwise would will. The forbidden fruit seemed good as food – now we are prone to sins of the flesh (gluttony, lust, sloth). The forbidden fruit was pleasing to the eye – now we are prey to lust of the eyes (greed and envy). And the forbidden fruit was desirable for wisdom – now we puff ourselves up with pride and vainglory and seek to dominate others through wrath.
Fast forward to Jesus. Immediately after Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit drove Him into the desert for forty days and nights – a time of prayer and fasting. It was in the desert that Jesus was tempted by Satan to sin. In His responses to Satan, Jesus shows us how to respond in freedom. Jesus was tempted to turn stones into bread and satisfy His fleshly hunger. He responds, “Man does not live by bread alone.” Jesus was taken to the top of the temple and told to prove He was to Son of God by jumping off – after all, God promised to catch Him (Satan even quotes Scripture in this temptation). But this was a temptation to pride. Jesus answers with humility – “you shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” Finally, Jesus was led to a mountaintop and shown the world – it would all be His, if He would just do homage to Satan – a temptation to grab power and possessions, so pleasing to the eye. But at what cost? Jesus says, “Get away, Satan! It is written: The Lord, your God, shall you worship and Him alone shall you serve.”
In the practice of prayer, we are reminded that God is “He who is” and we are those who are not. That is to say, as we grow in relationship with God through prayer, we come to see more clearly the truth about God and ourselves. We grow in humility, charity, and all the virtues as He pours His grace out upon us. But we have to open ourselves up to Him and we do this through prayer.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Through the practice of fasting, penance and mortifications, we bring the body and passions back into subjection to our reason and will. Like a spoiled child that has to be disciplined and trained, our senses, carnal desires and passions need to be purified and brought back into right order. Of course, we can only do this with God’s grace. We are also reminded how weak and helpless we are apart from God. We cannot rely on our own strength – though we work and strive as if it all depends on us, we pray for God’s help and abandon ourselves to Him as if it all depends on Him.
Finally, though almsgiving, that is, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, we become detached from the things of this world and freed from the sins of greed and envy. We stop worrying about what tomorrow will bring because we learn to trust God’s providence, while at the same time growing in charity toward our neighbors.
Lent is not about punishing ourselves. It is not God’s intent that we simply suffer, as if that were the goal in itself. In St. Catherine’s Dialogue, she repeatedly records God telling her, suffering is NOT a proper goal. Prayer, penitential acts and works of mercy are only worth anything at all because they spring from, are rooted in, and lead to love. So if our Lenten practices are not leading us deeper in relationship with God, helping us do good and avoid sin – in a nutshell, aiding us to more perfectly keep the commands to love God and neighbor – then we need to go back, reassess and adjust our practices.
So, how do your practices of prayer, penance and almsgiving help you love God and neighbor? How can we grow in holiness this Lent? How can we better prepare ourselves to welcome Jesus, like a bride greeting her beloved, on Easter morning?