|February 10, 2016, Ash Wednesday, Cycle C|
When you receive your ashes in a few minutes, the minister will say Repent, and believe in the Gospel. The other option is something that people of my generation or older will recognize: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. I was never a big fan of that one because it too often is understood not just literally but as a finality. The Church uses ashes to usher in Lent not as a symbol of death or a morbid reflection on what happens to our bodies when we die but as a very ancient symbol of repentance. Lent is not a time to beat ourselves up about all our sinful ways, nor is it a time to get depressed about our mortality. It is a time to repent. And to believe even more deeply in the Gospel.
As many of you have heard me say countless times, to repent does not mean to dwell on our past sins, or even to do penance for them. Repent means to turn around. It is the translation of the Greek word metanoia which literally means a change of mind. When Jesus started off his public ministry by going around and saying, "Repent, the kingdom of God is at hand", he is calling us to turn our minds around. The physical metaphor is that we are heading the wrong way and we need to turn and follow Jesus, who of course is the kingdom of God.
It is true that we are made from dust; but the even more astounding truth is that God took that dust and fashioned it into human beings. And the dust become human was able to be assumed by God himself. So Jesus in his humanity is from dust. When I remember that the suggestion that I remember I am dust is not anything demeaning at all. And of course as a human being I will die and this particular set of molecules will disintegrate and become dust once again, Jesus' resurrection reminds me that a new, glorified body will replace this one.
Here is one way that I like to think about being marked with ashes. It is like a brand that is used to identify who owns that livestock. Ashes remind me that I belong to the one who took dust and created me. And like any livestock that gets lost, my brand can help me return to where I belong.
In the culture spanning the writing of Joel to the Gospels, the heart is the symbol of the whole person. Lent does not call us simply to do certain things but first convert our heart to discover Jesus and follow him. The Lenten practices will do us little good if we are just going through the motion. That is why Joel tells Israel that God wants them to return to Him will their whole heart. The three examples that Jesus uses say the same thing, that we should pray, fast, and do our works of charity because we have turned our hearts to God not because we want people to see how good we are.
So I pray that we all enter into our Lenten practices of fasting, praying and doing works of charity with one intent: to turn our minds and hearts back to Jesus.
Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.