Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent. The season of Lent is journey of sorrow, repentance and conversion manifested by practices of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. Why is this undertaken by the Church? To prepare hearts for Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Why? So, the Christian heart can stand before the cross of Christ and celebrate at his empty tomb. These words are heavy and difficult, and yet, there is one more thing to consider. Even though Ash Wednesday is a day of penance, it is also a day when the purpose of penance is realized. The work of penance within the heart is the first taste of God’s love. The Christian God is love. The only reason a person can undergo works of fasting, almsgiving and prayer is acknowledging the truth that God’s love is already at work within their hearts. Thus, Lent is a time when the Lover rekindles the embers of love within the Beloved’s heart. It by witnessing to love that the Church can best support those preparing for baptism. Their moment of entry into the life of love that exists between Christ and his Church.
A Radical Insight
Within the heart love is never isolating. Love unites but the lack of love separates. The unifying desire of love within the heart is important. Why? It is from the heart that a person primarily interacts with the world. Within that vision our minds must always remember that it is out of the heart that good and evil enter the world. Hence, a Christian is called to regularly reflect on the state of their heart. In knowing the deep purpose of the heart the Church offers to her members a radical insight about the heart from the proclamation of the Prophet Joel heard on Ash Wednesday. Joel reminds us that God is concerned about hearts not primarily about the sacrificial offerings (JL. 2:12-18). This is a radical insight, because this book of the bible was written during a time when there was a huge plague of locusts destroying the land of Israel. The modern ear may merely hear the pleasantry of the words, but within its historical context the radicality of the text is revealed. Joel sees this plague as a sign of “the day of the Lord”. The phrase “the day of the lord” is a statement that points to the end times. Hence, the conversion and transformation of the heart takes on an eschatological perspective. Remember, the heart focuses the person to what satisfies their being. If the heart is twisted, focusing the person towards an unsatisfying end then their being lives in frustration because satisfaction can never be realized. Joel appears to have thought he was living during those times. From that perspective, he was trying to reorient his people to focus on the end that brings about satisfaction. An end that is only manifested within a heart focused on God. Sacrifices can’t appease God, when God has no residency within a heart.
Purification: A Freeing of the Heart
Our hearts are the house that God wishes to dwell in, so he calls us to prepare our hearts for him, as he told us within the Gospel on Ash Wednesday (MT 6: 1-6, 16-18). The purity of a heart shows forth the beauty of God’s creation. Beauty is not a food to feed our vanity. Beauty is meant for rejoicing in. A rejoicing in and for the goodness of the Lord who has allowed beauty to exist. Joy comes from being with our God in that inner room. Therefore, the work of purification is not merely an individualistic act but a communal act. Houses are meant for a family. The second reading for Ash Wednesday (2 Cor. 5: 20-6:2) reminds us that the work of reconciliation has been given to the Church. How is reconciliation knowable within the Church? It is realized through Christ’s Apostles, as St. Paul tells us within his 2nd letter to the Corinthians. The gift of reconciliation is preserved through their descendants, the bishops, who share it with their priests. The incarnated reconciliation entrusted to these men both impact the soul and body of the members of Christ. If I may on a pastoral note, beg you all to receive the sacrament of confession during Lent. It is a healing sacrament. It heals the heart by freeing it from sin. The sacrament, also, heals communal relationships by the fulfillment of the penance given to a person by the priest. The love given to the heart via this sacrament never remains chained up within itself because it melts those chains of sin. Without those chains the love of God that floods the heart pours forth impacting the community the person resides in. A second plea, if possible, is to go as a family, so each member can pray for the one making their confession. The sins that bind a heart also leaves its cold chill upon a person’s family. Yet, with love there is a freedom that is offered to each person without personal cost. The cost of sin has been spared us by Christ, who took the cost upon himself. May our hearts always keep before it the vision of the Cross.
The Vanity of Ashes
I call upon that vision of the cross because Ash Wednesday presents a temptation within our modern/postmodern world. During the Mass or Ash Wednesday service each person is offered ashes. Ashes that are placed upon their head. Ashes are a sign of our death. Those ashes remind us and others that we all will die. In that reality of death, when seen through the cross, reveals to the believer that the life they are preparing for, in the now, is one in relationship to the eternal life won for us by Christ. Depending upon how one lives, in the now, the person begins to taste either the eternal life of heaven or hell. Without, this eschatological milieu a question is posed to us. Why are we receiving the ashes? If a person is receiving ashes to brag to people in their life (whether physically or via social media), I would implore them to not receive ashes. Why? Because their heart seeks vanity and not the life of Christ. It that state of vanity, when the ashes touch their heads the eternal flame of pain and lose is already filling their minds with its dark smoke. Within that obscurity the love of God remains hidden from the person. Yet, if a person is receiving ashes because they wish to acknowledge their sinfulness in public then I recommend they embrace their ashes with joy. Why? As the bible tells us there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner repenting then ninety-nine righteous people who did not believe that they needed repentance (LK 15:7).
Again, Ash Wednesday is a day of repenting and proclaiming our death. A death that inflicts us because of our sins. The use of ashes on the skin is a necessary reminder of our fallen state. Please note, I wrote fallen state not our end state. Those two concepts need to be kept separate because Ash Wednesday is a day that the beauty of our heart is revealed to us. Ash Wednesday tells us that a repentant heart is a heart that has the embers of God’s love within it. The love of God is an eternal flame that can never be extinguished. Yes, we will die but death no longer has the last word. Love has the last word, because the love of God conquered death. A repentant heart is also a victorious heart, because it has the love of God. Ash Wednesday, is the doorway to Lent. It begins a journey by which the victorious love of Christ stokes the zeal that each Christian is called to embrace for evangelization. Zeal spreads the fire of God’s love, from heart to heart, so more people may be brought into the Father’s eternal celebration of love for his victorious Son, Jesus.
The pure and whole work done for God in a pure heart merits a whole kingdom for its owner. ~ St. John of the Cross (The Sayings of Light and Love #21)