“You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Ash Wednesday, the kick-off to the Church’s penitential season of Lent, is not a holy day of obligation — or opportunity as I prefer to think of it — and yet…it is one of the most well-attended services of the Church year, at least here in America.
There is something powerful about hearing these sacred words, and having an ashen cross traced on one’s forehead. There are no restrictions on who can receive the ashes either. Everyone, of all ages, is welcomed to come forward to be marked with the cross.
Why the draw? Well, I can only say why my own heart yearns for this each year, but in that answer, I can make some guesses as to why I’m not the only one who finds this time of year so compelling.
Part of it, I think, is the fact that our culture tends to want to subdue death. We want to hide it. We have funerals whereby the encased body is raised next to the ground, but all the loved ones walk away before the body is lowered into the ground and covered up.
To me, it seems a denial of sorts. Maybe, if we don’t see the body being buried, we can pretend our loved one didn’t really die. Is that it? Even in the case of people who carry around the ashes of loved ones, I question whether they are only prolonging the truth, and delaying closure and healing.
We do not want to confront death, and we go to great lengths to pretend it’s not going to happen to us. At the same time, we are a culture of death, obsessed over it, as evidenced in horror films, movements such as those that encourage the “shouting” of abortions, and the objectification of God’s sacred icon, his people, whom we use and discard in myriad ways.
Death is everywhere in our culture. In our avoidance of it, we can’t help but look, and not only that, but invite it in in ways that were never meant to be. Rather than be the natural process it was meant to be — a transition from one life to the next — we make it more morbid than necessary.
Lent offers something different. Lent offers truth. It is a chance to face our death, through the ashes, and then through self-renunciation and mortification; through denying small pleasures, and thinking of others before ourselves; through pausing more to pray and reconcile with the God of life, who will someday usher us into death, and beyond that, to our own resurrection if we choose.
We thirst for this pause, for this readjustment, for this time with God in the desert. God himself, as evidenced in his Son Jesus’ life, needed time away to pray, too, to commune with his father, and prepare for the hard things he would go through. He showed us how to endure suffering, and if we want to live fully, we will follow suit, for suffering is another given of being human.
Lent is one of my favorite times of the year, not because I want to torture myself, but because I thirst for God, and our culture’s demands make seeking him enough so very hard.
I know that Catholics are not the only Christian body that celebrates Lent — and I’m grateful for that. I do know that Catholics regard this time of year in an especially deep way, taking seriously the need to humble ourselves, to move through the Stations of the Cross with Jesus, to reflect on how we can live more fully so that we can someday die in the peace of Christ.
Jesus proved to us that even God cannot escape suffering, but even more, that he would be with us in ours. It is an invitation into love, and one we should not avoid, even if it means that in this, we will face our death. For no one will be exempt from this fate, but only the ones who accept our Lord as companion and guide will move through it with clothes dipped in grace wiping our weary foreheads along the way.
There’s much to know about the Catholic embrace of Lent, and so much to be confused about. It’s worth knowing the truth, for the truth will set us free.
Lent is just one more reason that, despite all of the turmoil in the Church, I am still Catholic, and gratefully so. Here are some past posts that cover other reasons why I am still Catholic.
What are your reasons for leaving the Church? What are your reasons for remaining?
Q4U: What aspects of Lent do you find helpful?