Living with Ashes

Like most of us, I adore Advent—the darkness of mid-winter, the flickering candles of the Advent wreath, the anticipation of the Incarnation, hope of the world. Even my impatient heart can enter in. But Lent? Its starkness is not even hidden by the dark of winter, but revealed for the barren reality that it is. 40 days of self-sacrifice, accountability and the anticipation of the gruesome and beautiful reality that ushered in our Salvation. This season is not for the faint of heart.

Lent is here. It was marked yesterday by the most widely-attended holy day of non-obligation on the Church calendar.  Amidst the ashes, this phenomenon gives me hope each year. The hope of Easter, yes, but more than that, the signal that as a society there is a need to publically set ourselves apart and be reminded of our humble existence and radical dependence on God’s mercy. A small gesture perhaps, but absolutely an opportunity for grace to enter in.

I have no light to shed on this statistical anomaly and what it says about the heart of where we find ourselves, culturally.

What I can tell you is that my husband and I have been helping to teach a course on Marriage prep at our parish over the course of the past four weeks and it has been a preparation for Lent of sorts. If there are grounds for self-sacrifice and death of selfish desires, some of their most humble beginnings can be found in honest preparation for and the living out of the vocation of marriage. I mean this in the most positive of ways.

Our preparation starts in Genesis—the same readings we reference as we receive our ashes: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  The story of our humble beginnings in the two creation accounts have become some of my favorites in all of Scripture. I love hearing the account of God lovingly calling all of creation into being—into communion, relationship with himself. Beyond that, over and over, the whole of creation is named “good.”

If I can let my hackles down about this Lenten call out of my comfort zone, then I can admit that essentially this is what I am being invited into in this season of Lent, too. Not just relationship, but right relationship with God as well as my spouse and my neighbors—all of them. As a spouse or participant in the Christian life, I am being re-created. I am living with the ashes that are my human limitations and the remains of my selfish desires, and it is good.

Then he said to all,
‘If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself
and take up his cross daily and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.
What profit is there for one to gain the whole world
yet lose or forfeit himself?
— Luke 9:23-25