The Meaning of Ashes

It's Ash Wednesday, the day on which I like to say that the Church puts death right in our face. We tend to avoid any thoughts of death, living as though this life on earth will go on forever. We know it won't, but we don't like to think about its end, our end.  But facing the fact that our life on earth will one day end can give perspective to how we live this life.  It can put us in touch with our end, our goal and purpose. Sin is what ultimately gets in the way of our attaining the purpose for which we were created--union with God and communion with all God's children.  Sin is what disrupts and even negates God's plan for humanity.  Sin is disorder.

That is the title of Mr. Jacob Boddicker's reflection for the Magis Center for Catholic Spirituality. Jacob is a Jesuit scholastic who is finishing his regency--that period of ministry in a young Jesuit's formation between his philosophy and theology studies.  God-willing, Jacob will leave the high school classroom where he teaches and head off to theological studies next year.  I think that his periodic daily reflections reveal the promise that he shows of being a great Jesuit communicator, both in the printed and written word. 

And so with gratitude to God for calling this fine young man to the Society of Jesus, I share his reflection for Ash Wednesday:

Sin is disorder.
Lent is an opportunity for us to repent and re-order our lives to God. The first words of Scripture we hear today reflect this reality: Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning. Why such things? They remind us that we do not live on "bread alone" (Matthew 4: 4) and that it is God who fills us with joy and peace (Romans 15: 13). By fasting, by accepting our deep need for God we return to the natural order of things and find peace for, as St. Augustine has said, "Peace is the tranquility of order." When all is right in the world, when we let God be God, we find peace and plenty for if God is our first desire, we are filled.

It is interesting, then, that so many Catholics who have in many respects turned away from their faith choose this day to return. There is something about the ritual of the ashes and the mark upon the forehead that draws them back. Some say they see it as an opportunity to publically announce their identity as Catholics; some just find the ritual of it to be otherwise rewarding. But what is really happening here.
God has burned down the Tree of Eden in the fire of His love and, scooping up the ashes He puts us in our place, as He did when He planted that Tree in the beginning. He does this through His Church whose ministers trace with the ashes the mark of the New and Everlasting Tree; He does this with the solemn reminder of who we are: "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

Ash Wednesday is the day of all days that we remember who we truly are: creatures of God, not gods ourselves as was the first sin. We reject our self-idolatry and publically profess that God is God and we are not; is there any more radical statement we could make in the world today? Let this cross of ashes crucify our pride, and let us not forget the profound and fundamental truth that it proclaims: we are not God but are His creatures, fashioned from the dust of the earth. Yet though our first ancestors ate from the Tree of Eden and died, we are given a new Tree upon which hangs the Fruit of the Virgin's Womb, "the food that endures for eternal life."(John 6: 27) As we fast from the world let us feast upon the goodness of the Lord, who, for love of us, gives His very self as our food and drink.