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Ash Wednesday

Sister Doreen’s Reflections

Ash Wednesday – the beginning of the paschal mystery is a day of happiness, a Christian feast. It cannot be otherwise, as it forms part of the great Easter cycle.

It is interesting to note that the original  meaning of Lent the ‘ver sacrum’ means the Church’s ‘holy spring’. It’s a time when we turn our hearts and minds to God in preparation for the Paschal mystery, when we renew our baptismal promises and commitment to give our life to God.

Today is also Valentines Day, originally a celebration in honour of St. Valentine, and the most common symbol is a heart, as a symbol of that love that we are all called to.  When thinking of these two ‘feast days’ together, I began to realize that they really do go together, like two sides of the same coin. The love of God, God’s love, and the love of each other.

When the sign of ashes is traced on our forehead, and the words ‘you are dust and to dust you shall return’ – we are blessed, this frail creature that is me, this splendid creature that is me, the beloved of God. And as we hear scripture read, we recall the gospel message “be not afraid for I am with you”. It is a sign of God’s great love, acceptance, and mercy, signed with a cross, the symbol of God’s great love for us and God’s promise of new life.

When we exchange symbols of ‘valentines’ (cards, chocolates, or some other gifts of love) we recall the words from the gospel of John (John 4:7-12) “Dear friends: let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”

On this day we are reminded, over and over again, in the readings and liturgy for the day of God’s great mercy. Thomas Merton in his book “Seasons of Celebration” wrote: “Ash Wednesday is not focused on the sinfulness of ourselves but on the mercy of God – this is a day of mercy. Nowhere will we find more tender expressions of the God of mercy than on this day. God’s mercy is kind. The God of Ash Wednesday is like a calm sea of mercy.”

In my own musings I thought of how happiness is always a mix of both joy and sorrow. That seems to radiate clearly in the celebration of today. It’s a day when joy and grief or sorrow go together, hand in hand. Thomas Merton talks about a sorrow which pierces, which liberates, which gives hope and therefore joy.

Today is a day when we muse upon the fact that every day is a gift and with it we serve either God or ourselves. We spend it either binding ourselves tighter and tighter to things, burdening ourselves with unnecessary baggage which slow us down, which hinder us. It’s a day when we are reminded in the scripture readings that we are offered a gift – the gift of stripping off every weight that slows us down: that sin that trips us up. Today – Ash Wednesday – it is about the joy of a new life born out of the death to the old life. To the God of love and life we come in confidence with outstretched arms and heart: God have mercy on us – this is a day of mercy, a day of joy and happiness.

Thomas Merton goes on to say “Ash Wednesday is for people who know what it means for their soul to be logged with icy waters; all of us are such people, if only we can realize it.” It is refreshing on Ash Wednesday to be given a time to really ponder our own mortality while being held in the tender mercy of God on this day. It is a time when we can come to terms with a culture that tells us that if we work hard enough, if we have enough money, if we buy those ‘stay young and live forever’ skin care products, if we eat healthy, exercise more vigorously … we might just live forever, or at least we don’t have to think about the end of life! It is a time when we can admit that God is God and I am not! It is a day when I am set free from all my own attempts to manage my own human brokenness, and step into that deep and holy mystery of God’s love and mercy, God’s acceptance, and love.

Thomas Merton goes on again to say “There is confidence everywhere in Ash Wednesday, yet that does not mean unmixed and untroubled security. The confidence we have is always a confidence in spite of darkness and risk, in the presence of peril, with every evidence of possible disaster.”

If is a confidence born of the quiet words we hear in the gospels: “Be not afraid. I am with you.” We are reminded of God’s promises to us, that in our brokenness there is beauty and freedom, that we are loved with an everlasting love, that we are the beloved of the Beloved. And we can pray with confidence “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving kindness, in your great compassion blot out my offences … (Psalm 51: 1-18). It is a day when we can say with deep longing and confidence “may we obey you with willing hearts and serve one another in holy love …”

Ronald Rolheiser in one of his daily meditations had a diagram of a personal paschal challenge, after claiming “that we live by both life and spirit and our peace of soul depends upon having a happy synthesis between the two:

  • Name your deaths.
  • Claim your births.
  • Grieve what you have lost and adjust to the new reality.
  • Do not cling to the old, let it ascend and give you its blessing.
  • Accept the spirit of the life that you are in fact living.

This is something we must undergo daily, in every aspect of our lives. The paschal mystery is the secret to life.”

There was a refrain from an Ash Wednesday liturgy used when attending a service in the Cathedral in Victoria one year that I found helpful for my own meditation on this Ash Wednesday: “Ashes to ashes, from dust unto dust. The cross on our forehead, your promise, O God. Ready us to follow the way of your Son, to rise from these ashes, redeemed in the fire of your love.”

May today usher us all into a holy Lent.