“Dust you are…” “Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return” are the words the priest intones as he imprints the cross in ashes on the foreheads of the faithful on Ash Wednesday. In an age of incessant self-promotion and unbridled self-expression, these words may seem strange or even counter-cultural, but we ignore their meaning at our own risk.
For the 40 days of Lent, Christians throughout the world will be urged to walk together through the desert of our unworthiness, examine our consciences, face our faults, and turn to the Lord for his grace in a broken world. As we start the journey, the Church renews the traditional Lenten practices that Christians have embraced through the ages to seek deeper conversion — fasting, prayer and almsgiving. Fasting is a practice that goes beyond Christian faith. Many religions, including Islam, practice fasting for a variety of reasons. In every case, the practice is meant as a spiritual aid to deepen our relationship with God. Fasting reminds us in a physical way of the hunger that we should have in our spirit for God’s life. We fast to remind ourselves of how poor and hungry we are without God.
Our lives may be filled with many things, including plenty of food and many material possessions, but none of these things has eternal value. Nor will they satisfy our deepest desires to find lasting peace. Such a desire can only be filled by God’s life in us. While we may be tempted to think that fasting is too difficult or simply outdated, let us not forget the millions of people throughout the world who are forced to fast each day because they simply do not have enough food to eat. Our fasting brings us into solidarity with the poor of the world and should move us to help those who are hungry through no fault of their own.
Inevitably we must all come to the cross of our own suffering and limitations. In other words, anyone who wishes to share the glory of heaven must take up his/her own cross and be willing to suffer for the sake of the truth, to stand in solidarity with the poor, die to our own sins and to love generously. Lent opens the door for us. It is a time to recalibrate our spiritual lives and to put Christ at the center of our lives. In doing so, we have the assurance that we will enter the desert and come out renewed in mind body, and spirit. In a broken world, Lent is a path to wholeness; by emptying ourselves, we are sustained and filled by that which is truly valuable and enduring. It reminds us that faith, hope and charity must be found one person at a time — and this faith that God will be with us, especially in our moment of suffering and loss, is strong enough to transform the world.
Lent also asks us to forget the “selfie,” to take ourselves out of the picture. And one of the best ways to do that is through self-sacrifice — not simply by passing up coffee or candy, but perhaps by letting go of the certainties and selfishness that cut us off from others and God’s grace. Perhaps in an age of social media and digital news gathering, we are simply more aware of the problems that confront us: terrorism, violence for reasons of state, environmental degradation, political unrest, hunger and starvation, the uprooting of populations, the lure of destructive and life-denying ideologies, and seemingly a growing intolerance — perhaps even an inability to agree on the truths we hold to be “self evident.”
Sadly, the love that Christ continues to offer the world is neither desired nor welcomed by many. Some would rather choose violence, division and fear over love, forgiveness and mercy. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of a penitential time to prepare for the celebration of the Lord’s Paschal Mystery — His Suffering, Death and Resurrection. The ashes come from burnt palms that were used last year to welcome the Jesus into Jerusalem, the City of David, commemorated on Palm Sunday. We must remember that by the end of the same week, Jesus was led to the cross as he freely gave his life for our salvation. Such a triumphant welcome with palms was reserved for the Emperor and his delegate as a sign of their power and might. In the case of Jesus, the palms ushered in the victory of love, not the victory of military might.
So, let the ashes we receive remind us that every act of might, tyranny, power, selfishness and callous disregard of the poor are powerless next to God’s grace. So, too, our earthly possessions, opinions, honors, accomplishments, ego — and even our very bodies — will eventually turn to dust. And we must ask ourselves, “What will remain?”
The Most Rev. Frank J. Caggiano is the spiritual leader of 400,000 Catholics throughout Fairfield County. Follow “Bishop Caggiano” on Facebook and on twitter: @bishopcaggiano.
By Bishop Frank J. Caggiano from ctpost.com