Tuesday, February 21, 2012


Icon of Jesus Tempted in the Desert

Ash Wednesday, which begins the season of Lent, is a very ancient observance . Originally it was a period of preparation for catechumens -- people who wish to be baptized into the Christian church. Participation in the life of the Church was strictly limited for those who had not been baptized, and the weeks of Lent were set aside for a rigorous program of study, prayer and fasting that would conclude with Baptism at the Great Vigil of Easter. The category of catechumens has long been abandoned, and while a more open inclusive spirit is to be welcomed, no doubt, it is arguable that the Church has swung too much the other way, requiring very little indeed of those who would attend its services. Accordingly it is worth focusing with greater concentration on the discipline of Lent.

The readings for Ash Wednesday point us firmly in the right direction, while at the same time indicating the spiritual obstacles that lie in the way. Through the prophet Joel, God pleads, "Return to me with all your heart,with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning", adding immediately the warning that we should not confuse outward show with inward spirit --"rend your hearts and not your clothing". Isaiah issues the same warning even more firmly "Such fasting as you do today" he tells the Israelites, "will not make your voice heard on high". Why not?  Because it is self-serving and unaccompanied by the real repentance that reveals willingness to change the way they run their lives.

In the Gospel passage, Jesus expresses this same concern. He denounces the showy penitence of the righteous who seek to impress those who witness their zeal. In the light of this passage, which is always used on  Ash Wednesday, the ancient, and now very widespread practice of the Imposition of Ashes seems a little odd. Does it not conflict with Jesus' explicit  instruction to "wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others"? Imposition, though, it not meant as a sign of fasting. Rather, it is a tangible as well as visible acknowledgment of the truth that lies at the heart of all religion -- our mortality. "Remember, O Man, that thou art dust, and unto to dust thou shalt return" is the traditional version of the solemn sentence that is uttered as ashes are imposed in the shape of a cross.

We cannot put off dying, but we can put it out of mind. Yet it is a simple fact that there will come a day when we no longer exist. At that point, the story of our lives -- whether good, bad or trivial - is finalized for ever. The trouble is that we do not know exactly when that day will be. This is why the readings for Ash Wednesday include the memorable urgency of Paul's second letter to the Corinthians "See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!". And so it is for us too. The sole hope of immortality is eternal life in God through Christ.

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