Good Zeal

Signed with Ashes

Distribution of ashesSeveral months ago, in R.C.I.A. we talked about the Paschal Mystery, which is one of the central concepts of our Catholic faith. The Paschal Mystery consists of the passion, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ – it is the work that God the Father sent His Son to accomplish on earth.

We, the followers of Jesus Christ, are a Paschal People. This Paschal Mystery is part of our everyday life. It is the undercurrent of all that we do and all that we are.

We learn from Jesus that new life can come from death, that we can find meaning in tough times, and that there really is light in the darkness. We learn that all life has this rhythm of dying and rising and that God is with us in the good times and in the bad.

Christ’s experience of suffering, death, and new life has forever changed us and given us a different way of living. Death no longer has the last word. The Easter Cycle consists of six Sundays of Lent, seven Sundays of Easter and Pentecost Sunday.  The unity of this cycle declares that there is an inseparable relationship between cross and resurrection in Christian faith.  We observe Lent in anticipation of the Resurrection, and we celebrate the Easter weeks remembering the cost of the victory –the cross.

Our Lenten trek toward Easter begins on Ash Wednesday. We gather in community to remember with story and ashes. (These ashes have been prepared by burning the palms used in the joyous entry of our Savior into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday of the previous year.)

The ashes we wear remind us of the dust and mess of our lives, that we are temporary creatures on earth, but not in God’s eyes. Our bodies will indeed return to the earth from which we came, but our souls are intended to be forever with the God who made us.

As a child growing up in Birmingham, we were the only Catholics in our neighborhood. I really dreaded Lent because this was a time that really pointed out the fact that we were “different,” we were CATHOLIC. It meant that we had to abstain from meat on Fridays among other things.

There was a family across the street who were good Baptists. During Lent there was a spend-the-night birthday party, and I was excited that I wouldn’t have to eat the dreaded fish sticks served at my house that night. At the party, they were having a cookout, hamburgers, and hotdogs! When it came time to eat, I was presented with a TUNA SANDWHICH by the mother of the family out of respect for my religion. I remember her saying, “I knew that is what your parents would want.” At the time I wanted to cry, but as I have grown older, I often think of how neat that was. Imagine if today we could really respect and support the teachings of other religions and not always fight or argue about them.

Over the years I have grown to have deep appreciation for the season of Lent (although I still don’t like fish). In fact, I would have to say that I look forward to the season of Lent each year. Lent is a season of reflection, re-evaluation, repentance, and reconciliation. Lent is a time of profound Grace, and we are invited to let that Grace sink in, take root and change us.

Through our observance of these days by listening to the Scripture from the Lenten liturgies and by participating in the traditional practices of the Church, we are invited, in this holy season, to be stripped down and cleansed from all the obstacles that keep us from seeing our true selves clearly; stripped down so that we may come to understand more powerfully the Love of God who embraces all of who we are.

The signing with ashes on our foreheads is a solemn call to penance: “Remember! You are dust and to dust you shall return.” It is also a reminder of the joy of eternal life: “Repent and believe the good news!” If we are reconciled to God and one another, we become “ambassadors for Christ.” When others see the good news at work in us, they won’t have to ask, “Where is your God?” because God will be evident in all we say and do.

The ashes we receive are a sign that we are all in this sin business together. The distinction between the good in us and the bad in us is sometimes frightfully thin. We so often fall short of the Faith of the Covenant we claim. We have treated people as things, and we have treated things as if they were valuable people. And so, we look into our hearts and make the ancient prayer of one notorious sinner our own: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10)

In his message for Lent in 2021, Pope Francis says that Lent is a time for believing, for welcoming God into our lives and allowing him to “make his dwelling” among us (John 14:23) The Holy Father reminds the faithful that the Lenten practices of fasting, almsgiving and prayer make it possible for us to live lives of sincere faith, living hope and effective charity, thereby sharing in Jesus’ mission of the salvation of the world.

During this season of conversion, Pope Francis invites the faithful to draw from the “living water” of hope and receive with open hearts the love of God.

Joan Chittister, in her book The Liturgical Year, says, “Lent enables us to face ourselves, to see the weak places, to touch the wounds in our own soul, and to determine to try once more to live beyond our lowest aspirations.” It reorients, re-grounds, and re-centers us, empowering us to live in a more whole way. It offers us…. Spring.

Pope Francis invites us to walk with those who struggle; to feel the pain and allow our human emotions to cause us to act. In The Joy of the Gospel, he says: “Sometimes we are tempted to be that kind of Christian who keeps the Lord’s wounds at arm’s length. Yet Jesus wants us to touch human misery, to touch the suffering flesh of others. He hopes that we will stop looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune and instead enter the reality of other people’s lives and know the power of tenderness. Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated and we experience intensely what it is to be a people, to be part of a people.”

In his annual Lenten message last year, the Pope says: “Indifference to our neighbor and to God also represents a real temptation for us Christians. Each year during Lent we need to hear once more the voice of the prophets who cry out and trouble our conscience.”

These words are attributed to Pope Francis: “Fast from hurting words … and say kind words, Fast from sadness … and be filled with gratitude, Fast from anger … and be filled with patience, Fast from pessimism … and be filled with hope, Fast from worries … and have trust in God, Fast from complaints … and contemplate simplicity, Fast from pressures … and be prayerful, Fast from bitterness … and fill your hearts with joy, Fast from selfishness … and be compassionate to others, Fast from grudges … and be reconciled, Fast from words … and be silent so you can listen!”

Initially, this blog was completed well before Russia began its attack on the democratic country of Ukraine.  In light of the unprovoked and barbaric invasion of a sovereign nation, the words of Pope Francis become all the more meaningful–walk with those who struggle. Jesus wants us to touch human misery, to touch the suffering flesh of other.  The prayers of our monastic community are joined with the communities of Benedictines in Ukraine and innumerable other innocent victims who are suffering at this time.  We also pray for the good people of Russia who are being arrested and persecuted in their own country for daring to question the unjust actions of their government leaders. May peace be our quest and aim.

Sister Janet Marie Flemming, OSB

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