Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Reflection: Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday, the day when millions of Roman Catholics get dirt smeared on their foreheads.

Why do we do that?

Well, ashes are a sign of repentance in Scripture.  We often hear of sinners dressed in sackcloth and covered with ashes, doing public acts of penitence to demonstrate their sincere sorrow.

I don't think any American Catholics are going to walk around wearing sackcloth today, but plenty will be marked with a little black cross.  Remember when that British news anchor did not know what was on Vice President Biden's forehead?  Here's a link to the video (the quality is a little poor, but I wanted to find a video that did not insult the VP, and this is what I came up with).  That gaffe is, to me at least, a sign of the loss of a sense of sin among modern Christians (though the reporter does get credit for her admission of shame at the end).

The point of being marked by ashes is to publicly acknowledge personal sinfulness.  I'm a sinner.  I don't always admit it.  I need to, if I want to break the cycles of sin in my life and receive forgiveness.  Ash Wednesday's ritual is a great help in that effort.  It is a little humiliating to walk around with a dirty face all day, but I need to be humiliated so I can gain some humility.  Humility is a prerequisite for love.  I can't really love others if I love myself more than them.

The great joy of Ash Wednesday is that the very thing that marks me as a sinner is the sign of my redemption.  To accept the ashes is to accept the healing love of Christ.  The cross is a tool of torture transformed into an instrument of salvation.  I like to think of it as the printing press that was used to spread the Word of God.

To truly repent I must truly convert.  Whether I am like Peter, slowly learning the true identity of Jesus and growing out of cowardice into courage, or like Paul, suddenly thrown from the seat of pride into the humble dust of blindness, I have to allow Christ to change me.  I am not right, not the way I am now.  There is good in me, but there is also evil.  Only Christ can achieve the total transfiguration for which my soul longs.

So, as Lent begins, I'm going to strive to put away my sins and take up the mantle of Christ.  I'm going to receive the Eucharist, confess my sins, and pray.  And pray.  And pray.  I want the external sign of my salvation to become the internal first principle of my life.  Scripture puts it this (arresting) way: circumcise the heart.  Circumcision is the outward sign of the Covenant, but it is what is inside a man that makes him faithful to God.

I know I'm going to fail.  I'm going to fall, probably a lot.  But I will pick myself up, let Christ dust me off, and continue on.  Why should I worry about getting dirty when I'm already covered in ashes?

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