Of all the insults and arguments hurled against the Catholic Church, two stand out to me in particular: 1) The Church is obsessed with guilt, and 2) faith is just a way to avoid the reality of the finality of death. The former stands out because it actually sounds like a good thing (look around and tell me a good dose of self-aware, honest understanding of individual guilt and the need for reconciliation with self, others, and God wouldn’t be a societal boon. I’ll wait). The latter stands out because days like Ash Wednesday just seem to so blatantly show the problem with this sort of accusation. Far from avoiding the reality of the finality of death, we fully understand it–we literally hang an image of someone’s death over the altar in our Churches! We fully accept it’s finality, too: that’s what makes the Resurrection a really big deal (oops, spoiler alert, sorry).
The guilt-obsessed charge does, admittedly, have a twinge of truth to it (as all the worst things do). There really is an undeniable emphasis on understanding our brokenness in Catholicism–but only for the sake of recognizing the greatness we’re beckoned towards. Without a firm grasp of our status as creature (and therefore significantly lesser than Creator), we are all too likely to lapse into hubris. This is literally the Original Sin of Adam and Eve. To point this out, however, is not to be guilt-obsessed, but rather simply to recognize the importance of honesty in the spiritual life. Without guilt (the natural product of an informed conscience recognizing something gone wrong), growth goes out the window.
In addition, without a firm grasp of our inability to escape death, we’re quite likely to not recognize just what makes Easter so glorious. It is this simple and brutal honesty that comes to face us on Ash Wednesday: we aren’t all that and a bag of chips, AND we’re not going to be here forever.
In this Ash Wednesday call to “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return”, we often get caught up in the second part: we will suffer bodily death. I imagine this is because it’s easier for most of us to deal with than the first part (a simple reminder of our mortality is usually a softer blow than one to our ego). No reminder of mortality is needed for those who’ve lost children, seen their relatives suffer, endured the harsh realities of war, or brushed near death themselves. However, for those who’ve not experienced these things, some reminder is necessary and important: “Go about your daily life”, it reminds us, “but do so knowing that one day, in the way you know it, it will fully, completely, and irreversibly end”.
This is important, and must be remembered throughout the year, but we must not forget the first part of the Ash Wednesday reminder: “you are dust”.
I am composed of dust as I live and breathe right now.
I am historically dust by the impact I will have on humanity as a whole.
I am relatively dust by the size of me versus the size of the ever-expanding universe.
I will one day fall apart into the dust from whence I came.
But I imagine a bit of of dust was shaken off the stone as it was rolled away from the empty tomb that first Easter morning, and therein lies the key.
The beauty of Ash Wednesday now begins to really become apparent: on a day when we are reminded of our current and future state as mere dust (a dose of humility many of us–myself included–SORELY need), we’re simultaneously reminded that this is the beginning of Lent, a season that ends in a dramatically different manner than which it starts.
In other words, Ash Wednesday is not simply a day to be somber with regards to our possibly-impending earthly doom. It is yet another opportunity to rejoice in the God who knows us, makes us out of dust, imbues us with a soul that yearns for His fulfilling presence, and calls us forth to a life eternal that is truly beyond explanation.
How could I possibly deserve such a thing? What could I possibly do to live my way into it, or begin to earn or repay such a gift? In truth, there’s nothing I can do to actually deserve, earn, or repay it. I can, however, offer what little I have, like a child who uses the markers and paper they’ve been given by their parent to create a picture they know will be received graciously by that same parent.
The markers and paper of the life of a mature faith are prayer, almsgiving, and fasting (which, you may notice, were the three topics Jesus addresses in today’s Gospel). I may not be able to truly praise God as He entirely deserves, give God what He has given me, or turn away from every last thing that keeps me from Him, but I can certainly join my efforts to the gifts of His grace and go from there.
This Lent, I pray you are fruitfully able to do exactly that: join your efforts to the gifts of God’s grace. If you have yet to entirely figure out what this looks like in your next 6+ weeks, I humbly offer these suggestions:
Prayer: Take up new habits of prayer every day. Devote a specified amount of time every day to some form of prayer, and repeat these same practices regularly, so that when Easter comes, you’ve established new habits of living with Christ (if you can’t think of anything, try this).
Fasting: Spend some of the time in your above-mentioned habitual prayer to discern what it is in your life that is keeping you from going deeper in your life with Christ (hint: it’s probably not sweets, so discern deeper). When you’ve come to some awareness of this obstacle, make a plan to cut it out of your life. Perhaps you’re able to cut it out entirely and all at once. If so, great! Perhaps it’s going to take a more intentional, strategic, gradual process. If so, great (as long as you make progress–don’t confuse “gradual” with “plateau”)!
In addition, commit to truly fasting on Fridays in Lent: no meat, no snacks, and keep your three meals small. It’s not fun, but dust doesn’t need to have fun 🙂
Almsgiving: contact your local Catholic Charities organization and find out what sort of services they provide, and how you can support them. Perhaps it’s a financial gift, or a regular donation of items: ones you don’t use anymore, but also ones that you do. Charity isn’t truly charity if it’s always safe and easy.
If you’re looking for another way to give alms, commit to tithing a consistent and larger-than-comfortable amount to assist with your local parish’s needs. Maybe $20 does this, maybe more, maybe less. That’s ultimately between you and the Lord.
The ashes on our forehead today remind us that we came from dust, we are still dust, and one day we will return to dust, but through the grace of God we are called to and empowered for so much more. As St. Irenaeus put it:
“For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God.”
So why guilt? Why ashes? Why fasting? Because they’re the mechanism by which God helps dust become divine.