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 the beginning of Lent back in the 4th century, at a time when the Lenten Fast was taken much more seriously than it is today. In contrast, 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 the Lenten liturgy. But, unlike the fast, it has survived – and thrived. It seems now that almost everyone wants ashes on Ash Wednesday.
For many 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 used to ask that question at Mass on Ash Wednesday, and I usually answered it with some variation of "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, not to mention the Republican "Big Lie" about the 2020 election, for once at least we are being told something that is simply and unambiguously TRUE.
The last time I asked that question in an Ash Wednesday homily was two years ago in February 2020, almost literally on the eve of the covid pandemic, that very vivid evocation of our morality and fragility, which would shortly shut down for a while even the church where I was pastor. I remember that occasion well because that was also the day when my mother was suddenly taken to the hospital, where she would die nine days later. What very vivid and unambiguous experiences of the fragility of everything we expect and count on in life!
We live in a therapeutic age which prizes safety, comfort, and feeling good about oneself. Yet each year Ash Wednesday, with its sobering message of mortality and fragility 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 narcissistic self-absorption.
Today, the Church invites us to break out of our routine and do something we usually seem so reluctant to do – to take an honest and critical look at ourselves, at where we have been, where we are going, where we would like to be going, and how hope to get there.
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