Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

05 March 2014

The Ash Mash, Always In Fash

I have a few moments in between Masses to offer a reflection or two about this non-obligatory yet culturally and spiritually popular festa in cinerem, known as "Ash Wednesday."

Since I first started receiving ashes, and more acutely since I first started applying them, I've preferred the traditional declaration, "Remember [man] that you are dust and to dust you shall return" (memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris). Of course the contemporary challenge to "turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel" is valid and effective as well, because it is the desired human and Christian response to the fact of mortality.

To date I do not recall anybody coming up to me for ashes with their tongue stuck out. One priest who was leading a retreat told that story and said that he gladly obliged, figuring that the recipient was either not accustomed to going to Mass or unwittingly treated it like any other Mass. We of a kinder, gentler Church might have chosen differently; but who am I to judge?

My best tale from today: when I applied ashes to one individual with the mortality memento, he thanked me – and I responded, under my breath, "don't thank me!

I didn't cause the human race to be subject to the ravages of sin, suffering, and death! No, but I accepted God's call to apply the remedy to sin, suffering, and death, even as I needed it.

The spiritual disciplines of a disciple (from the Latin discere, to learn) are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving/charity. To these I add watchfulness, perhaps the result of the first three.

"What do you mean by watchfulness?" Glad you asked. At all times we are under the perspicacious eye of the Primordial Enemy of Salvation and Transcendence (PEST). Being of angelic personhood, he will always be keener and wilier then we. Therefore we must unite our consciousness in real time with our Lord and Lover, attending to Him at once within the privacy of our "rooms" (as Jesus suggests today in Mt 6:4-6) and in His divers human disguises. If we try to do that for so long as one minute, we'll begin to notice the resistance seethe within us. This is not a failing, but rather an opportunity to remind ourselves of God's providential care, intended specifically for us in these God-awful circumstances.

A priest-friend reminded his Facebook friends that, while ashes are available today, the Gospel and the Eucharist (and, I would add, the Communion of Saints, ourselves included) are also available at each and every iteration of the Lord's One Saving Sacrificial Banquet. Cultural Catholics treat Ash Wednesday like some local baseball fans treat the day when every guest receives a free Jimmy Rollins bobblehead doll. God takes what He can gets, but maybe God also expects more out of us. "Well, that'll teach God to have expectations," our snarkier selves might retort.

One would surmise that an All-Knowing God neither has nor needs to have any "expectations" for us, as if He is somehow "waiting" upon our responses; but "one gets the feeling that God is on the journey, too" (St. Teresa of Ávila), so maybe in our limited time-space experience, the foreknowledge of God (Whom we oft imagine as "waiting at the end" vs. "present all the while") mysteriously permits our free action. We don't have to have it figured out; we just have to live it.

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Forgiveness is one of the major aims of Lent. Forgiveness of self always seemed like a strange concept to me, but the longer I run, the more I perceive its relevance in my life. Here is an article that might help you in this lifelong, needful spiritual discipline.

And here's a fun exercise from the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), who encourages people to post ashen photos and descriptions in the Twitterverse and Facebookia under #ashtag: a 21st century media m-ashup.

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