By Bishop Joseph N. Perry
Led by a cross, the altar servers and priest move slowly down the aisle stopping at each station. The priest reads a graphic account of the painful sufferings of Jesus along with a confession of guilt on our part in causing this shameful journey of the Lord. 14 times, the people in the pews respond with genuflection: “We adore thee O Christ and we bless thee because by thy holy cross thou hast redeemed the world!” A musical antiphon follows at each station stop; “At the cross her station keeping, stood the mournful mother weeping close to Jesus to the last…”
We fast for the next 40 days. Mothers are careful that breakfast and lunch combined do not exceed the main meal in size on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and other days in between by holy choice. And we abstain from meat and meat products in soups and salads. Children and adults popularly give up sweets, desserts, dances and movies – all the self-indulgent things. The road to church is traveled many times during this season. A mood of somberness and severity settles over the Catholic world. It seems to match the dull time of the year as winter keeps its stubborn grip and spring is struggling to give birth.
You might call these 40 days a retreat for the Church. Deep violet is the color of worship and sanctuary space is generally stripped bare. We switch to this observance about a month and a half after the Christmas and Epiphany festivals. This annual spiritual renewal prepares for the celebration of the Christian memorial of Jesus raised from the dead, for He is Lord, the Christ. Lent, therefore prepares for Easter and new life.
Ashes are made from palms donated from the previous Palm Sunday. The dried branches are burned and the residue is powdered and refined and then smeared on the forehead. In some other places around the Catholic world the ashes are dropped on the top of the head. This custom represents an ancient penitential practice going back as far as 300AD connected with expelling public sinners from the community. These people were found guilty of public sin and scandals such as apostasy from the faith, heresy, murder and adultery. By the 7th century a ritual emerged where these public sinners voluntarily accused themselves, came forward and confessed their sins, approached the bishop and were enrolled in the ranks of penitents in preparation for ceremonial forgiveness on Holy Thursday.
After a laying-on-of-hands and imposition of ashes on their heads and shoulders they were expelled from the congregation in imitation of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden with the reminder that death is the ultimate punishment for sin: “Remember, you are dust and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3, 19).
So, these public sinners lived apart from their families and from the rest of the church for the 40 days of Lent. Dressed in rough-hewn cloth/sackcloth and ashes, they were identified as sinners in the congregation and were often postured on the steps of the church as others walked in. Common penances issued at that time required that these penitents abstain from meat, alcohol, bathing, haircuts, shaves, marital relations and business transactions. Depending on the church locale, some penances lasted for years and still some others lasted for a lifetime.
From what history tells us, these penitents were not opposed to the Church, rather they were in love with the church but were very aware of how they harmed the Church by their behavior and looked forward to being reconciled with the Church. Without being in love with the mystery of the Church they would not have come forward for this cleansing period of discipline.
That was then and this is now. Much has changed about public life and the venues of secular life and religious life are much more separate in most places. But, one can easily see remnants of these strict practices that are retained in our modern church Lenten practices today, albeit practiced in our religious privacy. There is a profound moral cleansing of ourselves implied in all this.
“Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart.” (Joel 2, 12).
We human beings have an uncanny ability to reduce anything to ashes. We can reduce relationships to ashes. We can turn another’s feelings, hopes and dreams and dignity to cinders. Our self-centeredness can scorch the earth, leaving behind nothing but charred ruins for the poor, the mistreated, the forgotten, and the people who don’t matter in society. Self-absorption, fear, intolerance, racism and injustice make burned rubble of our lives and those we say we love.
The ashes we accept on our foreheads on this first day of Lent is an acknowledgment of the ashes we have made in and of our lives, the dreams and hopes we have allowed to disintegrate, the love and joy we have stood by and watched, helplessly, go up in flames.
The 40 days ahead of us are a time to resurrect from those ashes our hope, our love, our compassion, our sense of justice. In the clear light of Christ this Ash Wednesday we see our lives for what they are, we recognize the mistakes we have made, and we seek the grace to rebuild the lives we may have destroyed by unchristian behavior.
Each year we begin this way. Lent begins with a little death. It is a death to self, entered into through tiny doors; the doors are fasting, prayer and generosity. We foster small disciplines for the next 40 days to rein in the mania of my will which gets in the way of my approach to God, to halt the progress of self-absorption and greed whose inroads undermine the journey toward holiness.
At the same time, Lent is a season for reflection, a backward glance at “what I have done and what I have failed to do.” How have my doings and failures obscured the light of Christ that struggles to shine through me? Has my corner of the world been in darkness while I have hidden my light under a secular agenda – getting ahead, being noticed, fitting in, and consuming all sorts of stuff?
We begin the season marked with the memento mori, the reminder of our death. Across the Catholic world, we hold a symbolic funeral for ourselves in public view. We acknowledge our mortality, our fragileness and limitations. We bury what is dead in us. We enter the tomb with Jesus awaiting resurrection on that most Special Sunday of religious observance where we shout to the world our most fundamental belief, our God in Jesus is not dead but is alive, when evil men meant him dead!
You heard the prophet Joel announce today what is needed: a turning of the whole self to God. Not just the Sunday part or the religious part but the entire mind, heart and strength that Jesus reserved for the love of God. “What is not assumed is not saved,” St. Augustine wrote. What we withhold of ourselves from God cannot become Christ. This is the challenge of Lent: to catch hold of those shadowy aspects of our lives and make them confess the Christ, as the demons Jesus cast out of the possessed in Galilee would do.
In our Lenten observances we shine a flashlight around the dimmest corners of the self and bring the often forgotten and taken for granted into focus. Our spiritual disciplines make us more honest, pruning away the unessential so that we can see and own what’s at the heart of ourselves.
It is that heart in the end that will emerge from the tomb at Easter. When the little death of Lent has passed, only what is lifted up with Christ will remain.
©2013 Bishop Joseph N. Perry. From the CMCS article archives.