In our last reflection I remarked that the ashes we wear on Ash Wednesday cannot be a mere cosmetic, altering our appearance for a single day; we must allow them to enter more deeply into our lives – and we must embrace their invitation to change. The day after Ash Wednesday I opened my computer and found a very touching essay by one of my young Dominican brothers, who observed, “…it is a common experience for people to make big Lenten resolutions [and] fail to keep them...but this is no reason to lose our interior peace.”
Ash Wednesday is certainly a memento mori, “you are dust and to dust you shall return.” It serves as a reminder of our fallen state. Ashes are the product of fire, which is a powerful asset when kept in check, but devastating when it gets out of control. This is similar to how our passions work. On their own they are good and help us in our pursuit of the good. In excess, however, they inhibit our attainment of the good and consume everything in their path.
And he concluded
Instead of focusing on ourselves, we ought to direct our attention to God, who can bring good out of everything, even our sins. As a forest can gain new life from the destroying effects of fire, even our wretchedness can prove to be fertile soil for growing in humility and trust in God.
The key is to let nothing rob us of our peace. This peace is not a false sense of security that ignores the gravity and repugnance of sin, nor does it rule out strenuous effort and the need to manifest our contrition by external works of penance. Ultimately, our peace is Christ himself. He it is who “lifts the needy from the ash heap” (Ps 113:7).
Fire is an on-going threat to those of us who live in the West. And yet, my brother’s reflection is a reminder that fire need not only exert a negative force. The intensity of God’s love, often compared to fire, can purify our lives, if we are willing to embrace it, and allow us to transform us.
Those ashes we donned a month ago show us what remains after a fire, and these final few days of Lent might be a good time to ask whether we have allowed ourselves to become like those ashes – what’s left our sinful selves once we allow the immensity of God’s love to consume us. That, after all, is what these days of sacrifice are all about. We mistake the meaning of sacrifice if we imagine it means no more than “doing without”; the word sacrifice means “to make holy,” and these days of Lent – even if we have but a few left – invite us to surrender to God’s love, wherein we will find (as my Dominican brother points out) find the peace and joy of Easter.
This is, without doubt, an immense blessing, but we may not hoard it. Our theology teaches that gifts are never given simply to enrich the one receiving them; they are given to enrich the entire community. We embarked on our Lenten Pilgrimage with every other member of Christ’s Body, and while this might not have occurred to us on Ash Wednesday, we undertook a ministry on one another’s behalf – to share the fruits of our personal trek toward holiness. The days of Lent will soon come to an end, but we will never reach the end of the transforming journey from death and ashes to life and peace that our Baptism calls us to share.
May your Easter days be joyous and grace-filled!
by Father Reginald Martin OP