We Christians are a strange bunch. Throughout the Northern Hemisphere spring is about to arrive – yes, even here in Massachusetts though it didn’t seem it yet. The solstice is in a few weeks, the days are getting longer, the sun is noticeably stronger. Birds are singing. Many societies would consider this a time of rejoicing.
Instead, we sprinkle ashes on our head. We wear penitential violet garments, we fast, we sacrifice.
The strangeness of our traditions, from the world’s perspective, tells us a lot about our culture, and about the wisdom of our Church.
The ashes remind us that we are all going to die. We are mortal. The call to repentance that echoes through today’s readings reminds us of the same thing – life on earth will not go on forever, so we need to take responsibility for it.
And for many of us, those are hard teachings. Talking about death doesn’t make for good conversation. Because many believe that life on earth is all there is to look forward to.
Yet we Christians go out of our way to be told ‘remember you are dust and to dust you shall return’.
By faith we know that ashes are not the end of the story. We know that Jesus defeated death and that we, through our baptism, have a share in that victory. And so, we have the courage to face the trials and the sorrows of this life.
During Lent, you could say we die a little. We die a little by denying ourselves some of the good things of life that God has given us. We die to ourselves a little by giving up some of our treasure in alms. We die to sin, die to hypocrisy. We dare to do these things as we have confidence in God, in his revelation about the meaning of life and death.
We wouldn’t have any reason for self-denial if we didn’t believe in Christ’s Kingdom. And so, fasting, abstinence, and giving up something meaningful during Lent demonstrates reverence for God, our Creator and Redeemer. Jesus submitted to his Father’s will. During Lent we die to ourselves as Jesus taught us so that the Father’s plan can be accomplished in our lives.
The ashes of Ash Wednesday are not the end of the story. They mark a beginning, the beginning of Lent which we know will end in the glory of Easter. Our struggles here on earth are not the end of the story. They mark the beginning of our preparation for the Kingdom of God. We know that all life on earth will end in the glory of the second coming.
We die to ourselves each day and rise again on the Day of Judgment. That is the meaning of the ashes we will all soon receive.