February 17, 2010
How did Mother Theresa do it, walking through the slums, day after day? How could she bear to see the matchstick-thin arms of the children, the despairing faces of the ill? How did the young aid workers in Louisiana bear it, carrying out the weak and dying from flooded houses? How is it that we are able to witness such horror as piled up bodies of those in Haiti, knowing that further still are more buried under the rubble? How do we bear it, this pervasiveness of death?
It is everywhere we look, no matter how hard we try to avoid it. It hides behind the loveliness of the tulip tree blossoms; it lurks in the twinge of a muscle, the flutter of a heartbeat. It accompanied me to the altar rail years ago when I received ashes for the first time. There amongst us was a young girl bouncing up and down with atypical exuberance of youth awaiting their first chance to have a black smudge on their foreheads.
We too this Ash Wednesday will be kneeling, as she knelt, in acknowledgement of our mortality. “The Lord God himself knows whereof we are made; he remembers that we are but dust”, so the psalmist says. So it is fitting that we are marked with ashes, the indistinguishable remains of something that once had being. Ashes remind us that we must die to this world. On this day we die to our desires; our intemperate love of worldly things, our exploitation of people and environment, our anger, envy, and hypocrisy.
And we do so with a gesture. Look, we say, this black smudge on our foreheads has marked us as those who know what we have done. We have laid waste our Eden; we have twisted our enormous potential for doing good into war, disease, and hunger. We have been cowardly; finding it easier to turn aside from injustice and cruelty than to take a stand against it. We have had the boldness to put a price on the head of God’s own children. And we have put greater value on public approval than on God’s approval; so unlike the hypocrites in Matthew’s Gospel, the problem is not that we give and fast and pray boastfully, but more often fail to do so at all.
On this day we acknowledge our wrongdoing and more. We acknowledge our impermanence. Even ashes with which we are marked were once alive. They are the remains of the palms that we carried into church last year on Palm Sunday to hail the coming of the Messiah. Vibrant and green, they dry out during the year and are burned. This smudge on our foreheads marks us as those who soberly looked death in the face and called him brother.
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”. That is what our liturgy says. That would be the end, except that the smudge is in the sign of the cross, the same one that rises from ground zero, and the one thing that reconstitutes us from an undifferentiated pile of dust. The ashes are a sign of mortality and penitence, but the cross is a sign of God’s love, the same sign we received at Baptism. It is his gracious gift of a new being, a clean and contrite heart, a fresh start, a brand new creation. The sign of death, the ashes, becomes the sign of life, the cross.
And that cross shows us both how to bear our mortality and how to transform it. The cross is how Mother Theresa not only walked through the slums, but rolled up her sleeves to feed the hungry and comfort the dying; how the aid workers not only wept over the flooded streets, but gave a hand, a coat, a meal to those they met. That is how we deal with the fragility of the world around us. By looking through the cross, we see beyond the surface, see through death to life.
With that view, how can we not rend our hearts, how can we not repent giving our heart, soul, and mind to other loves than God, how can we not feel remorse over loving ourselves more than our brothers and sisters?
Bowed with penitence over things we have done and have left undone, we are, by God’s mercy, marked as his own, scrubbed clean, made whole, and set on our feet, so that we may go back on our knees.
As Sacramental people, we return to the altar for Eucharistic thanksgiving. The wonder is that on the day of fasting, on a day that begins our personal forty-day trek into the wilderness of our own selves, we are fed so abundantly. No matter how many wolves howl in the wilderness, no matter how thick the underbrush or dark the path of repentance, we carry with us the light of a promise. We have looked life in the face and know that we are all God’s children.
The ashes will wash off of our foreheads, but the cross is inscribed on our hearts. It is our own transformation that gives us the courage to love and serve the Lord by serving all of those he loves.
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.