Good Zeal

A Blog for Ash Wednesday

fresh grave in the monastery cemetery“Keep death daily before your eyes,” St. Benedict writes in his Rule for beginners (RB 4:47). Out of context this sound like a morbid way to live. However, in this case, St. Benedict includes this as one of many “tools for good works” listed in Chapter 4 that are available for practicing a spiritual life. Out of all 74 tools that our spiritual father gives us, the daily reminder of our mortality stands out from all the rest on Ash Wednesday, the day we remember that we are made of dust and to dust we shall return.

Across multiple religious traditions with ancient beginnings, ashes are associated with death and/or purification. In the Bible wearing sackcloth and ashes on the body represented intense sorrow, distress, and grief. The wearing of ashes also has carried with it a symbol of repentance, of turning back to God through the confession of guilt and sin and admitting one’s need of forgiveness. Wood ash, like soap, is an alkaline substance that, when combined with water, has a cleansing effect. Similarly, at a spiritual level, the daily remembrance of our mortality helps to cleanse the soul.

“You can’t take it with you,” is a cheeky excuse some people use to justify wasteful uses of wealth on overindulgent behaviors or pleasures. That is true. Those who die do not take their earthly wealth with them into the grave. Egyptian pharaohs were buried with great wealth surrounding their sarcophagi in their elaborate tombs, believing that it would be needed in the afterlife. Eventually, all that wealth became booty for tomb raiders and thieves.

Death reminds us of our limitations, which is why most choose not to dwell on it very much. For Christians, however, death is more along the lines of a portal, a gateway to eternal life with God in the life of the Risen Christ. The raising of Jesus from the dead inaugurated a new possibility for humanity to consider—a new whole way of being alive and unbounded by the trappings of earthly substances, weaknesses, and dynamics. The earthly existence ends, yet the spiritual being continues “to be” in a manner beyond what our minds can imagine. Suddenly, in Christ, death is no longer the absolute limit of one’s existence.

That the Risen Jesus was seen and heard days following his crucifixion, death and burial was consistently testified to by multiple witnesses, including St. Paul who, admittedly, was the least likely person to believe it. In Paul’s own conversion process, he realized how superfluous are the values that are rooted in world-centered principles of power, pleasure, status, and justice. All that he once prized and prided himself on, he came to see as worthless. You can’t take it with you, St. Paul explains to those who misunderstand his teachings. What does endure beyond death, Paul tells us, is love—love of neighbor, love of enemies, love of God. Paul came to realize that the cross of Jesus was not a defeated ending; rather, it was a redemptive act of love—a God-given gift that could never be earned, purchased or taken for oneself.

The daily reminder of our own personal death is a way of reminding ourselves that we will be held accountable for how we have lived our earthly lives—our choices, our actions, our treatment of others and, most importantly, our love. Receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday isn’t so much about death and dying. It speaks of our intent and our hope to become more loving persons, more of the person God has intended us to be at our creation and called to be through our baptism into Christ Jesus.

May this Lent be for us a journey into an ever-expanding capacity for love as the earthly attractions that surround us become less significant or meaningful when compared to the love of Christ given to us for our salvation.

By Sister Therese Haydel, OSB

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