So, it’s been awhile, readers (all zero-four of you). The spring semester hit hard in its second week, but things are looking a little clearer now. In any case, with the season of Lent now upon us, I want to be more dedicated to posting on this blog, more for the sake of actually committing time to reflection than on earning Internet glory.
Ashes are remarkably dreary and morbid. Ash arises as the waste product of combustion, the solid material left behind after an object has been engulfed in flame, from plants to animals to houses to people. It is an apt symbol for death, and it serves as an excellent tool to remind us of our mortality. “Remember that you are ashes (or dust) and to ashes (dust) you shall return.” We’ve all heard it as we receive the telltale mark of Lent on our foreheads each year. Now, morbidity comes rather easily to someone whose last name roughly translates to “Gravedigger” in German (i.e., me), but to most people Ash Wednesday seems like an unnecessarily depressing and bleak day in the already depressing and bleak month of February (or early March, if it’s a late year). Why do we observe it?
Ash Wednesday rituals started in the eleventh century, but the practice of Lent itself dates back to the early Church and was formalized after the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire in 313 CE. Catechumens preparing for baptism and confirmation into the Church participated in fasting and penitential acts 40 days before their initiation on Easter in imitation of the 40 days of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. (40 was an important number to biblical writers: consider the 40 years of the Israelites’ wandering in the Sinai Desert and the 40 days and nights of rain when Noah was in the ark.) Baptized Christians soon joined them in the practice, preparing their bodies, minds, and souls for the commemoration of Christ’s passion, death, burial, and resurrection.
Still, why all the gloom and doom? Here are a few reasons we may want to consider.
First, Christianity does not try to hide from the fact of death. Christians worship a crucified Savior, a God who submitted to the fate of all mortal beings. Catholics honor the lives of dead men and women who strived to follow God in their lives and through their deaths, and they venerate relics of those saints as focusing points for the power of God’s grace and love. Death is accepted, both as a fact of nature and as a disturbing, scary, and mysterious experience. In receiving the ashes and observing special practices during Lent, we remember our smallness in the world and history and our inevitable deaths. What this remembrance does is keep our pride in check and keep our ultimate focus (our devotion) on God, not this world or life.
Second, Christianity declares and affirms in Lent and especially in Easter that death cannot conquer God or God’s love. That Savior who died on a cross? He came back. God’s love is so infinite and amazing as to come into creation; submit to death, even death by crucifixion; and then transform it from within. We as Christians believe that Jesus showed and shows us the promise of resurrection, of complete and perfect communion with God in reconstituted and glorified bodies. We do not know much about what this resurrection or these bodies will be like (the disciples had a hard time recognizing Jesus, remember), but we do know that, as Jesus’ body included the scars of his death, our bodies and existences will bear the marks of our trials and sufferings, whether imposed by ourselves or others. If we allow God to truly love us, if we accept the crosses that come our way freely in God’s love, if we enter into the mystery of death, our pains and sorrows will be transfigured into a glory beyond our imagination or comprehension.
Third, much like the above, death carries the promise of rebirth. Ashes, as we know, carry nutrients that can fertilize ground and allow new life to spring forth. As such, they serve not only as reminders of death but also as reminders of life, specifically the life that comes through the love of God exemplified and exalted in Christ Jesus. In dying – and really only in dying – we can come to new life through Jesus, who has preceded us in death to open the unfathomable oceans of God’s life to us. Ashes invite us into a pattern of thought and action that will affirm God’s life and open our hearts to it, allowing us to be renewed for the observance of Christ’s resurrection and prepared for his ultimate return and our true rebirth.
Ashes aren’t aromatic oils or exquisite accessories, no. They are dreary, and they call us to keep in mind our sins and our own deaths. But they are also reminders, guides, and invitations, calling us to journey deeper into the mystery of God, Who is love and life, and in this, they are precious.