There is no island, no continent, no city or nation, no distant corner of the globe, where the proclamation of Lenten Fast is not listened to. Armies on the march and travelers on the road, sailors as well as merchants, all alike hear the announcement and receive it with joy. Let no one then separate himself from the number of those fasting, in which every race of humankind, every period of life, every class of society is included.
So said Saint Basil the Great (330-379) preaching about Lent in the 4th century, at a time when the Lenten Fast was taken much more seriously than we do today. In fact, because we no longer observe anything resembling the traditional fast, Lent has lately acquired a bit of an identity crisis. Hence our strange preoccupation with what to do differently, or special, or extra, or less of (as in "giving something up") for Lent.
Ash Wednesday didn’t even exist yet in Saint Basil’s time. The custom of everybody flocking to church to get ashes was a relative latecomer to Lent. But, unlike the fast, it has survived – and thrived. It seems almost everyone wants ashes on Ash Wednesday. In my 10 years as a priest in midtown Manhattan, we distributed Ashes, more or less non-stop, from 6:00 a.m. until 9:00 p.m. Perhaps 2000+ people passed through the church that day to get their ashes. I remember once when the parish office got a call asking whether we would start giving ashes at midnight, which made me wonder whether the caller was confusing Ash Wednesday with Christmas. From a marketing point of view, I suppose, offering ashes at midnight might be a great attraction. Who knows how many might respond to the chance to be the first on one's block to get ashes?
For many of those who come to get ashes on Ash Wednesday, it is a deeply, religiously spiritual experience. For many others, who can even guess what multitude of complex meanings and imaginings the reception of ashes may have? On the other hand, who can deny the power of God's grace that must surely be at work in drawing so many to church to get those much desired ashes?
The use of ashes, the Church reminds us, “symbolizes fragility and mortality, and the need to be redeemed by the mercy of God.” Remember, The Church tells us today, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. What is it about having dirt smudged on one’s face and being reminded that we are going to die that is so amazingly attractive?
Every year, I ask that question, and always come up with the same answer: because it is true. In this “information age” when we are all bombarded on all sides with images and words we cannot even begin to process, in this politicized age of “alternative facts” and just plain old-fashioned lies, for once we are being told something that is simply TRUE.
We live in a therapeutic age which prizes comfort and feeling good about oneself. Yet somehow, Ash Wednesday with its sobering message of the reality of human limits and its solemn challenge to repentance somehow still cuts through the poisonous political platitudes and psychobabble of our age to speak spiritual truth against the powerful lie of our self-affirmation.
Today, the Church invites us to break our routine and do something we usually seem so reluctant to do – to take an honest and critical look at ourselves - at where we are, where we are going, where we would like to be going, and how hope to get there.
Homily for Ash Wednesday, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville TN, February 26, 2020.