Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Ash Wednesday

As usual, it's been a while since I have been around blogger.com's hallways.  This time, it's been a bit more deliberate: I've been hibernating for a while, trying to get my head on straight, so thanks to those of you who have asked if everything is ok - I think it is.

I'm giving a little reflection at the Ash Wednesday services at the Catholic Center, so I figured I could post it - there are some recycled lines from older posts, but hopefully they aren't too stale.  I used to hate Ash Wednesday when I was younger, but in the past few years I've found some real treasures in it.  Hope the same is true for you.  My best wishes and my prayers for all of you this season, and in particular for the people of Haiti and those who are working on so many fronts to ameliorate their suffering...


I don’t know if any of you ever do this, but every Ash Wednesday, at some point during the day, I forget that I have ashes on my head and touch my forehead, and I get that gritty feeling of ash on my fingers. I hate that feeling – it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard – but it brings back to mind one of the formulas for the distribution of the ashes: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." We’ve heard it so often that we skip right by it, but that’s a dangerous memory, one we would rather not think about for too long. Ash Wednesday is a reminder that the end of my world is never terribly far away. I’m not talking about the end of life on earth, but the end of all our little worlds, the world of business as usual, the world which is all about managing our own fates. Everything is passing away: not only our lives, not only MY life, but everything – no nation lasts forever, no social system or economy or political party or national leader or public opinion lasts forever: nothing lasts forever.


Ash Wednesday is a weird day, I think: putting ashes on one another’s heads and telling each other that we are going to die sounds a little too morbid, a little too "scary Catholic." In a way, it’s a scandal, and it should be – in Greek the word scandal means “stumbling block,” or for my purposes, "speed bump,"  something that disrupts the easy flow of getting where we want to get. Ash Wednesday has the potential to be a sort of stumbling block, a speed bump, if you will: it urges us to resist, even if only for a moment, the dominant story of what life is SUPPOSED to look like – well-fed, perpetually young and beautiful and successful and happy and comfortable. It reminds us that the gospel we profess is no safe, harmless gesture we do for a day here and there: we are wearing on our bodies a sign of death and mourning, the impending end of our worlds. If we don’t just let this day pass by, rub the ashes off as soon as we leave, treat it like one of those Catholic duties we are supposed to get through as quickly as possible with a minimum of interference on your real life, this day can be a sacrament of the brokenness and the suffering of our world. That’s what all the ascetic practices of Lent are about at their core – not about being spiritual heroes, but bringing all this spiritual stuff back to bodies, getting us to FEEL something of the tears of the world in our own bodies and not just think about it for a few minutes and then move on. Maybe you have been thinking about what you are going to "give up" for Lent, and if you are doing something like that, good for you, but remember that it's not really about "giving something up," as if what God is really looking for is for you to quit drinking beer or watching Desperate Housewives or whatever else for six weeks. Take today’s fast, for example. Ask yourself, "When was the last time I felt truly hungry? How often do I eat when I’m not really even hungry?" The point is not how much of a rock star you are when it comes to skipping food: it’s about letting prayer get out of your head and into your empty stomach – actually FEELING hunger in your body. That’s what Jesus means with the expression "hunger and thirst for justice": something we can’t turn off any more than we can turn off feeling hungry. I’ll close with a prayer that some friends of mine have in their house: "Lord, to those who hunger, give bread, and to those who have bread, give the hunger for justice." Amen...

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Beautifully and eloquently written,as always, Patrick. Peace to you during this lenten season.

Anonymous said...

As always, Patrick, worth the wait. Thanks.
Shawn

ConcordPastor said...

Glad you came out of hibernation just in time to offer this nourishment on a day of fast and abstinence!

Bernie said...

I have popped over from ConcordPaster's blog and am so happy to I did.
A wonderful way to remind Catholics what Ash Wednesday is all about as well as teach non-Catholics why we have this wonderful expression of the Cross on our foreheads.......May you have a Lent filled with spirtual nourishment.......:-)

agnes said...

I also just popped over from CP -- your words are truly "food for thought"....MDR

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Patrick, for sharing your gift again. May Syracuse and the Brothers with whom you live be a source of peace, hunger, longing and depth for you.
Ray Hebert, sc