Ashes, Lent And Christian Living
MARCH 16TH, 2011 (IN CATHOLIC SERMONS) By Msgr. Anselm
As we continue our journey through Lent, the words we heard on Ash Wednesday, “Dust you are and unto dust you shall return” needs to continue to challenge us in the different ways in which our lives must be transformed into what God intended for us at the very beginning of our lives: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you” (Jeremiah 1:5). We were already dedicated by God before we were born and the ash we received on Ash Wednesday is a call back to that dedication. The question is, how?
As we may all be well aware, the ash we received on Ash Wednesday reminds us of what we are made of. In the book of Genesis, we read: “The LORD God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7). Dust is the material with which we were made. But, while dust may not be worth much as a commodity, we are still the most beloved creature of a loving God who shaped, molded and nurtured us into existence in His own Image and likeness.
Therefore, although we are dust, we are not dirt. Dirt is disgusting, dirty, filthy, and unbecoming. We are dust, precious dust, filled with God’s breathe, and appointed to be a witness of God’s love in the world; dust that is never to be despised. This is the kind of dust we are made of and the kind of dust we are supposed to return back to; dust that is ordained to be resurrected and to be with God forever.
The ash that was smeared on our forehead on Ash Wednesday, therefore, reminds us of our need to sieve the dirt out of the dust we are made of so that it can return to its divine purpose—precious dust. Our Lenten journey, in turn, becomes a period of concerted and dedicated effort to sieve the dirt of worldliness and ungodliness out of the precious dust we are made of—the dirt of dishonest living; life of debauchery and promiscuity; obedience to the needs of the flesh rather to the Word of God; behavioral patterns that are destructive or dysfunctional to healthy living; relationships that have ended or gone bad; unresolved grief, the spirit of anger, unforgiveness, wrath and revenge (as the Bible says: “Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight” Sirach 27:8); envy and jealousy that may be beclouding the spirit, and other kinds of deadness in our lives. These things introduce filth and dirt into the dust of creation and Lent is a time when we must separate the sheep from the goat.
Remember that our Lenten journey is not about our intention to get rid of deadly dirt in our lives; it is about our commitment to do so and to have done so. The ash we received on Ash Wednesday is a testimony to the whole world that we have actually repented. In the book of Jonah, we read: “When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in the ashes. Then he had this proclaimed throughout Nineveh: ‘Man and beast shall be covered with sackcloth and call loudly to God; every man shall turn from his evil way and from the violence he has in hand. "When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way, he repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them” (Jonah 3:6-10).
As we can see, it was when God saw that by their action they had turned from their evil ways that He relented. God did not relent because the Ninevites put on ashes and sackcloth; He relented because they had turned from their ways. Therefore, ash on our forehead is an outer manifestation of inner repentance. It is about having repented of our sins. This is not about an intention to repent; it is about the commitment and determination to have done so. In the Bible, Job, having been rebuked by God, confesses, “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6).
If we, therefore, have no determination to destroy the unchristian identities in us during this Lent, then the ash we bore on our forehead as a testimony of such commitment would be hypocritical. Ashes and Lent is not about being all hype and no show. In the book of Isaiah, we read, “Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter– when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58:5-7).
Lent reminds us of our need to get down to the practical life of a Christian. We must be on the watch, for it is easy to go through Lent without Lent going through us.