Ash Wednesday – 2017
Joel 2:12-18 / 2 Cor 5:20 – 6:2 / Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
The new life of Spring is all around us, or soon it will be. The days are lengthening. It is the season of Lent. The word ‘Lent’ comes from ‘lengthen’. This is not a gloomy season; the Liturgy calls it “this joyful season.”
The Liturgy is helping us to look to the roots of things to ensure that the new life will come from a deep place. You could arrange today’s Gospel passage in two columns; at the head of one, you could write IN SECRET, and at the head of the other TO BE SEEN.
Read the passage again and see this for yourself. One is left in no doubt that a deep truthful interiority is essential to a Christian life. A tree has to sink its roots deep into the ground, otherwise it comes down in the first storm.
If you project your imagination down into the ground where the roots are, you find a strange world of darkness, silence and stillness.
How frightening darkness can be, especially when it is filled with strange unaccountable shapes! How deathly silent it is down there! And it is like the tightest prison imaginable; nothing ever moves.
This is the opposite of the world above ground; there you have light, noise, movement. We human beings are like trees. There is a hidden half – hidden even from ourselves, hidden in darkness and mystery. And there is a half that is all light and noise and activity.
If we identify ourselves only with the public part, the part ‘above ground’, we will not be able to withstand the storms of life, and we will have no profound resources for growth. Our actions, our lives, like trees, emerge from a rich darkness, silence and stillness.
Today as the Church begins the season of Lent with fasting and abstinence, the Church also includes in the liturgy a rather unique substance. This substance makes its appearance only once a year and it is on this particular day, and this particular day of the Church year is even named after it.
Yes, we are talking about ashes, a substance that is quite alien to the usual materials that is associated with the liturgy. But it is only today that it makes its appearance and it is also used in a particular way that has its origins that dates back to the Old Testament.
Ashes smeared on the head and other parts of the body, or sitting in the midst of ashes was a sign of penance and repentance.
In today’s Mass, the ashes will be imposed on the forehead with these words: “Repent and believe in the Gospel”. The other formula is: “Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return”.
The ashes that are used in today’s Mass were obtained by burning the palm branches that were used in last year’s Palm Sunday Mass. As we look at the ashes, a thought or two may surface in our minds.
Ashes makes us realize two realities in the cycle of life. What has happened to the ashes is irreversible as well as irrevocable. We cannot reverse the process, we cannot change it back to what it was before, it cannot be recovered to its former state.
Yes, what has happened to the ashes is irreversible as well as irrevocable. Ashes are used in today’s liturgy, on the 1st day of Lent, to help us realize, in a very experiential way, that the season of Lent is a call to repentance and conversion.
Ashes are also used to help us realize our mortality and eventual finality. Yes, we will eventually turn to dust, for we are dust and unto dust we shall return.
And as Jesus tells us in today’s gospel, for all the material rewards of this world, all will eventually crumble and turn to dust. We are reminded of this as the ashes are imposed on our foreheads. But a deeper realization is that there is an eternal reward that only God can give.
When we realize that all will turn to ashes, that all things will pass, that our existence is like a passing wind and fades like a shadow, we must then turn to God and surrender the ashes of our lives in penance and repentance.
And it is in God and only in God that we will rise from ashes, we rise from the good we failed to do. It is in God and only in God that we see our world as ashes but our lives must be true.
May the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting and alms-giving help us to rise from ashes and to a new life that will give glory to God.