The editorial of the month

Father Sebastian White, o.p.

by Father Sebastian White, o.p.

Every Ash Wednesday I’m astonished, caught off guard almost, at how many people pass through the church doors. In my previous ministry the day’s schedule swelled from the usual two daily Masses—one at midday, one in late afternoon—to seven liturgies (plus one at the local police station), and each was packed. Additionally, folks arrived steadily throughout the day and well into the evening, in search of ashes and the reminder that they are dust.

A very acceptable time

No priest, of course, regrets seeing his church filled to capacity with eager participants, and would even love it to be a more frequent sight. After all, the worship of God is both a sacred duty and a privilege, a gift: the preparation for the endless bliss of heavenly worship. I am grateful for every God-given opportunity to communicate saving truth and the love of the Savior, to be an “ambassador for Christ,” as the day’s second reading puts it—especially when it’s a packed house.

So on Ash Wednesday, as I give voice to my own need for mercy, I hope and I pray that God’s grace sweetly and strongly breaks into any lives that remain burdened by sin or shame or regret, any who have lost hope, any who are still searching for what can only be found in the goodness and loveliness of God.

In all honesty, this is the plain and simple Gospel truth each of us needs to know all year long: Our sins don’t define us, our past does not dictate our future, and even when we are struggling, God remains the same—gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness (Jl 2:13). Those piercing words we hear on Ash Wednesday actually apply to every moment of our lives: Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation (2 Cor 6:2). In other words: It’s never too late. Every instant of our lives is the right time to recognize, receive, and bask in the mercy of Jesus.

Remember that you are dust

Apart from faith, it probably seems strange that one of the most “popular” days (if that’s the right word) of the Church year is literally the day someone blackens our forehead with ash and reminds us we are going to die. I remember when I first read in Saint Benedict’s Rule for monks that one of the purposes of life in a monastery is “to keep death daily before one’s eyes.” Since the monastic life is, ­really, a poignant expression of the universal Christian ­vocation to union with God, I took Saint Benedict’s instruction to have universal application. All of us, young or old, monk or homemaker, healthy or sick, ought in some measure to keep death daily before our eyes. After all, God is pretty ­straightforward about how things stand: It is ­appointed that human beings die once, and after this the judgment (Heb 9:27).

But this is not, actually, an invitation to morbidity or fearful retreat from a full engagement with life and our life’s duties. In fact, it’s an act of inspired encouragement:

Why does the Church place ashes on our foreheads today? Why does she remind us of death? Death which is the effect of sin! Why? To prepare us for Christ’s Passover. For the Paschal Mystery of the Redeemer of the world. Paschal Mystery means what we profess in the Creed: “On the third day he rose again”! Yes. Today we need to hear the “you are dust and to dust you will return” of Ash Wednesday, so that the definitive truth of the Gospel, the truth about the Resurrection, will unfold before us. (Saint John Paul II)

So there we have it: the Church exercises her maternal duty to remind us year after year of our mortality and our need to repent because, in truth, death has been conquered and sin is not the last word. Forgiveness. Reconciliation. Mercy. Life—this is what Ash Wednesday propels us towards, this is what Lent promises. So even while we are hungry from fasting or feeling the rub of our other penances, let us ask the Lord this Lent for the grace of an irrepressible, holy joy—the joy that only comes from recognizing our need for mercy; the joy that can co-exist, even, with sorrow for sin; the joy that comes from knowing the Lord.

O Lord, open my lips

Think of Ash Wednesday as both a call to conversion and conversation, a conversation of love with our God: Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning (Jl 2:12). And we respond, Give me back the joy of your salvation, and a willing spirit sustain in me (Ps 51:14).