It was my second Ash Wednesday as an ordained person, as one who imposes the ashes on the foreheads of those who kneel at the altar. Just the receiving of the ashes over the years had been humbling enough but to be the one who marks the foreheads so dramatically had taken me by surprise the year before when I had done it for the first time. Now at least I had some experience to draw on. To place those ashes had seemed so stark and harsh, but now I knew what to prepare for. And then she walked forward, out of the line of parishioners, my wife with our firstborn child in her arms and she only 3 months old. This I was not prepared for.
The ashes we receive on the first day of Lent are symbols of our mortal nature. As we wear them during that service and see them on the foreheads of others, we acknowledge that we will die and that, while we live, we are sinful. Those are both difficult admissions for us. At the time I was to put ashes on my three month old daughter, I myself was but 29 and, frankly, had not given serious thought to the matter of my own death. It took some inevitable run-ins with my physical limitations before I could face that as a reality. Similarly there is no small amount of denial in our lives with regard to sin.
The season of Lent, with Ash Wednesday as a leading focal point, invites us to a healthy acceptance of our mortality, our physical and spiritual limitations. We are consigned to death and we are consigned to sin. It is not accurate to think that we may will either death or sin away.
Sadly the Christian faith has been used to foster a very shallow understanding of these subjects. Some really believe that if they can live a good enough life they will not have to die, that the good part of them will be whisked magically into heaven. Nothing about humanity is immortal. The Christian notion of the resurrection is not one of immortality: rather it proclaims the truth that when we die, as when we live, we are completely dependent upon the grace of God for any means of eternity. Equally absurd is the notion that, if we follow all the rules and do our very best, we can avoid sin. Sin is not making bad choices: sin is the nature which makes bad choices inevitable and, so, makes suspect even our good choices. The simple fact is that we live here on earth estranged from the Lord who gave us life and we are dependent on God for any sort of reconciliation with our creator.
Ash Wednesday and Lent do not force us to be mired in the dark and dismal. They do invite us to an honest admission of our plight. Thereby, and only thereby, do we find the hope of the Christian Gospel. Our Lord Jesus Christ comes to give us life and sustenance. God himself does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. And first, we must come to terms with our limitations. Until we do we are only trapped by them. It is in the admission that we can go no further that we find the grace which takes us into that which we desire.
The great feasts of the Church are so very important. And this day of fasting, this season of penitence, enable us to appreciate the celebrations all the more. A child can truly appreciate the love of his parents only when he sees that their love is a choice made by them. We can only know of God’s love for us when we see that he has chosen to love us. God’s love is all gift. In the ashes of Lent, we relinquish all claims to deserving. Until we do that, we know no gift.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.