It seems macabre to have a special day devoted to reminding people they are going to die. Yet on the surface that appears to be the reason behind Ash Wednesday. “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust” and all that…
Indeed, this day brings with it a stark reminder of our mortality. We wear it on our foreheads, the smudged cross telling all the world that we are Roman Catholic, while telling those of us bearing these ashes that this mortal coil will one day be sprung — and there is nothing we can do about it.
But to stop there would be to take away an impoverished and rather bleak view of Ash Wednesday. In fact, this first day of the Lenten season offers a rich feast of wisdom for reflection.
First of all, it is no bad thing to be reminded we are mortal. Modern society tries to pretend that death does not exist. We do everything possible to hide its reminders and minimize its existence. We are, essentially, afraid of eternity because too many of us no longer believe in the afterlife.
Yet for Christians, the afterlife is the great promise of God, that we will spend eternity in joy at His side. Dying is not an occasion for sorrow (though we should not minimize our sadness at the departure of our loved ones). In our beliefs, death is a door to paradise.
The ashes symbolize both our beginning and our end. God created us, drawing us from the earth to be His favored beings. We are both of the earth and of God, part of His creation, yet part of his universal plan as well.
The cross reminds us of the sacrifice of Christ and our intimate relationship of love between Him and us. Christ’s passion, death on the cross and resurrection reveal to us the path of salvation.
Ash Wednesday also marks the 40 days of Lent, that special season of reflection on who we are and how we have lived the gifts we have received. It should be a time of thinking about about how we have treated others, a time of making amends and turning outwards to see the needs of others.
Some think this means beating ourselves up emotionally or psychologically, focusing on our flaws and asking for absolution. It’s true, searing honesty is necessary, but if we are really honest we will recognize that our human condition is not black-and-white. We are all broken, in need of healing. We all have value and are loved. Self-condemnation has no place here.
Our tradition calls upon us to pray, fast and give alms during Lent. These spiritual practices are there to help us in our journey toward greater self-knowledge and a deeper relationship with God. It is a somber time, yes, but also one that includes deep joy.
Publisher, Living with Christ
Publishing Director, Novalis