by Fr. James DiLuzio C.S.P.
Ash Wednesday is the second most popular church day throughout the year–second only to Christmas. “Why?” Because this day, these rituals expose what everyone knows yet tries to avoid or pretends to forget: Death is inevitable. Death comes for all — no matter our faith, our politics, our ethnicity or culture. Death reminds us of our common humanity.
Ultimately, acknowledging DEATH is the FREEDOM to put our lives, our worries, our anxieties, our prejudices, our fears into proper perspective. To live our lives well, with dignity, morality and charity, we need to be reminded of DEATH. Yes, we need to be conscious of DEATH to be more fully alive.
In its opposition to LIFE, to joyful existence, to loving fully, SIN is also death. It is as universally ubiquitous as death — no matter our faith, our politics, our ethnicity or culture, SIN is in evidence. And thus, SIN ALSO reminds us of our common humanity.
Acknowledging SIN is also freedom. When we admit, we are wrong we free ourselves from pride, from having to make excuses, from pretending we’re perfect when we know we are not. Sin exposes our delusions that we are above and beyond the common folk, that we are somehow superior specimens in contrast took our competitors, our classmates, our friends—or, dare we acknowledge, the many ways we may be better than some of our family members. Yes, sin makes evident we are more like everybody else – a truth we don’t often like to admit.
Yet, we know that Confessing our sins Is Freedom. The truth we all are sinners frees us from oppressive guilts and insecurities that chip away at our self-esteem– no matter the pride or false bravado we project to others. Identifying our sins frees us from the burdens of hypocrisies, and offers HOPE for change, for growth, for transformation. Blessed are the meek and humble, indeed, for when we get honest, we get humble and it is humility that strengthens our belief in the God of Jesus Christ, that His Holy Spirit is within us and present and at work in our world.
That is the reason we arrived here today. Drawn to the Church, to renew our commitment to Catholic Christianity in part for the ways it acknowledges the power of signs and symbols. So, we put ashes on our foreheads, publicly witnessing to THESE FACTS:
1. Death is reality
2. We are sinners,
3. And that all are dependent on the MERCY OF GOD in whom we live and move and have our being.
In addition to these ashes on our foreheads, we return to the Mass which includes the Confession of sin and the Hope and Realities of the WORD and EUCHARIST. We return to fortify our relationship with Jesus as our Christ and to improve our relationship with others. That is perfect freedom. This is HOPE INCARNATE.
Our RECOMMITMENT TO THESE TRUTHS of OUR Christian Faith invite people of all religions to consider and articulate how their respective faiths and lives witness to a Merciful God. When this happens, we shed light on to the same realities that death exposes: our common humanity and the need for God.
If asked today by others ” Why are wearing ashes on your forehead?” answer plainly and with confidence: “there’s value in admitting our wrongs and believing in the Loving and Merciful God Jesus revealed.” This can –and should — and WILL– make a difference. It will change the ways we see ourselves and the ways we treat others daily. This entire Lenten season strives to imprint this truth on our bodies and souls: LORD, JESUS CHRIST, SON OF THE LIVING GOD, HAVE MERCY ON US SINNERS. Making this our continual prayer Is our Freedom and our Hope.
Here’s an example of the difference CHRISTIAN Faith can make in our lives:
I invite you to imagine you are back in grade school– 3rd or 4th grades– you are 8, 9 or 10. You’ve had a bad day and, on that day, your faith was no consolation to you. You forgot Jesus was with you, that you could turn to GOD for consolation. So instead, you turned to another kid on the playground, the one with a dirty shirt, who rarely combed his or her hair, and you picked on him. You teased her unmercifully. Name calling, ethnic slurs and brutality ensue and you left the playground angrier than before.
On arriving home, your parent or guardian asked “What was the matter?” You tell what you did. Now that parent or guardian may or may not have been present to Jesus at that moment. If not, if he/she forgot that we are all sinners AND temples of the Holy Spirit equally. So, that parent or guardian screamed, “Go to your room and get out of my sight. I’m disgusted with you.” And, if that was their response, in retrospect, we can forgive them for it. After all, we were not in touch with Christ ourselves on that day. But if they were –ah what a difference!
If in a more prayerful mood, our parent or guardian would ask what caused us to act that way. They would have reminded us that we all make bad choices, hurt ourselves and others but in faith we can turn to God whose mercy inspires us to admit our wrongs and do something about them. They may have invited us to pray over what happened and discuss how we could put things right. They would have invited us to look at the choices before us – we could perpetuate the hurt, the guilt, or make changes for the better. Perhaps the love and mercy they showed us motivated us to phone that other kid and say we were sorry and say that we wanted to make it up to him. Perhaps we went to his or her house and apologized in person, inviting them to play a game with us or we offered to help with homework. If that was in your childhood experiences, that would have been an experience of GOD.
If this or something like it happened to you as a young person, I am here to assure you that that day was one of the best days of your young life. If it didn’t happen, if your parent or guardian condemned you and did not help you so something about it, if you kept your wrongdoing to yourself and perpetuated it because you felt guilty and ashamed, if you indulged your anger even further, FEAR NOT. For today, with Ashes on your forehead, you can change what you would do TODAY—you can act differently NOW—with anyone you may have hurt or who has hurt you. You can appropriate the gifts of your Confirmation now: the courage to speak the truth with mercy, with patience and kindness for yourselves and for others because we are all going to die. You can DIE to the Past and be present to God in Jesus Christ right NOW and let God’s tender mercy fill you with grace. That is the Freedom of Ash Wednesday; the Courage of Ash Wednesday; the Truth of Ash Wednesday and what this season of LENT encourages us to embrace.