Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ash Wednesday - Death and Ashes

Once again we come to the beginning of Lent. Once again we hear the call of the prophets, the apostles, and of Christ our Lord to conversion, that is, to turn away from sin and live a life of sanctity. But I wonder how many of us really do hear the call? How many of us heed the call? Every year the same words. Every year the same call to penance and conversion. Every year the same . . .

But every year is not the same. Every year we are one year closer to eternity. Every year we have one year less to be about the business of salvation. Every year death draws closer, the time of mercy lessens, and the dreadful reality of judgement is more immanent.

There is one thing, I fear, that is the same. That at the end of Lent we find ourselves no better prepared to meet our coming judgement than we were at the end of Lent last year or the year before that or the one before that.

We have been done a great disservice over the last forty years with the emphasis on Lent being placed on preparation for baptism. While it is true that this was the time in the early Church when catechumens entered the final days of preparation for Baptism, this is no longer true for even a large minority of people. I am not opposed to the current RCIA. I am opposed to how it has taken over the meaning and practices of Lent so that the vast majority of the faithful find themselves foundering in a season whose only meaning seems to be abstaining from meat on Fridays and a vague notion of the need for confession. We must recover the traditional meaning of Lent if it is to be of any help to us in attaining the only thing of importance: our eternal salvation.

We are marked with ashes for a number of reasons. From ancient days they have been symbols of penance. The cross reminds us that we are followers of Him whose Passion, Death, and Resurrection we are preparing to celebrate. They are a public witness to the need for penance and the hope for redemption in Jesus Christ. But most importantly, and we know this from the words properly used at their imposition, they are reminders that we will die and return to the dust from which we are made. "Remember, man, you are dust, and unto dust you shall return."
The reality is inevitable. We will die and we will return to dust. There is no escape. And when the time comes, we had best be prepared.

Lent is a time to face the reality of death and to prepare ourselves for it by meditating on the suffering and death our Lord. Our meditations lead us to penance for our sins and mortification to strengthen us against temptation. The reality of death fills us with the urgency to do what is necessary.

If in past years we have become complacent, either by ignoring or not being aware of the Lenten call to conversion because death is near at hand, let us resolve this year to face the reality of death signified by the ashes we wear and heed the urgent call to repentance. Many die suddenly and unexpectedly, so we had best be ready at all times and live our lives so that death will never find us unprepared.

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