March 1, 2019

Christ the Cornerstone

Ash Wednesday reminds us we need God’s love and mercy

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

“O God, who desires not the death of sinners, but their conversion, mercifully hear our prayers and in your kindness be pleased to bless these ashes, which we intend to receive upon our heads, that we, who acknowledge we are but ashes and shall return to dust, may, through a steadfast observance of Lent, gain pardon for our sins and newness of life after the likeness of your Risen Son.” (Prayer for the blessing of ashes)

Next Wednesday, March 6, we celebrate one of the most popular days in the Church’s calendar, Ash Wednesday. On this day, we remember one of the most basic truths about ourselves: We are dust, and to dust we will return.

The ashes that are placed on our foreheads in the sign of the cross remind us of our mortality, but they also associate us with the miracle of our redemption. The cross, which is an instrument of death, has been transformed into a sign of life. What was once a cruel form of capital punishment has become for us a symbol of hope thanks to its role in the passion, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Ash Wednesday is 40 days removed from our celebration of the Easter Triduum, but the sign on our foreheads is a dramatic statement about the journey from death to new life that is our inheritance as baptized Christians. Yes, we are dust, but that dust has been transformed by grace and will one day be reunited with our immortal souls in the resurrection of the dead on the last day.

In the meantime, it’s good to remember that God formed humankind from the dust of the Earth. The fact that we are dust, and will one day return to the Earth from which we came, should encourage us to be humble. We are not gods. We are not self-sustaining beings, but creatures who depend on God’s grace for everything that we have and are.

At the same time, the cross of ashes placed on our foreheads reminds us that we have a higher destiny. We are sons and daughters of God who are called to live forever in the joy of heaven that is foreshadowed by the Easter mystery.

The liturgy for Ash Wednesday emphasizes that the repentance to which we are called on this day, and throughout the season of Lent, must be genuine, not a superficial show of false humility. “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning. Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord your God. For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment” (Jl 2:12-13).

Ash Wednesday is not for hypocrites. It’s for women and men who understand that they are sinners called to repent and who trust in the loving kindness of God. “Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness; in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense. Thoroughly wash me from my guilt and of my sin cleanse me” (Ps 51:3-4).

In the Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday (Mt 6:1-6, 16-18), Jesus admonishes his disciples (and all of us), saying, “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father. When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others” (Mt 6:1-2). Humility, not hypocrisy, is the goal of our Lenten observances of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites” (Mt 6:16), Jesus says. Our Father, who sees what is hidden in our hearts, will bless us with his love and mercy!

The monks of Saint Meinrad Archabbey in southern Indiana have a tradition they observe on Ash Wednesday called the bona opera (good works). Every monk writes down a list of the good works he will perform during Lent. He gives this to the archabbot privately without sharing it with other monks. With the archabbot’s blessing, the monk carries out his good works quietly, confident that God’s blessing will sustain him in his prayer, his fasting and in the good works he is doing as part of his Lenten observance.

There’s a reason that Ash Wednesday is so popular. It speaks directly to our humanity, reminding us that we really need God’s love and mercy. May our celebration of Ash Wednesday next week help renew us in hope and joy as we once again begin the journey to Easter! †

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