There is so much to love about our Catholic faith, formed from our Judeo-Christian roots. But as Fyodor Dostoevsky once wrote: “Love is a harsh and dreadful reality.” Our tendency is to romanticize and commercialize love with sunshine, flowers, jewelry, boxes of chocolates, and scenic backdrops; but even Saint Valentine, who we honor with fancy cards and candied hearts, died a martyr, shedding blood for the sake of love’s terrible beauty. Ash Wednesday and Lent are appropriate times to contemplate the kind of love that is asked of us, as humans and as Catholics.
When we receive ashes and hear familiar, haunting words, “Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return,” we are not expected to say anything but merely receive them and continue our pilgrim journey toward death with a deepened sense of repentance. “Repent” comes from two Greek words that translate together as “exercise the mind” or “search for understanding.” Ashes have been a visual part of our salvation history told in stories of Moses, David, Job, Jonah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and so many others whom God put in circumstances to ponder a greater understanding of their mission. Of course, ashes and dust actually go back to Adam, the first person, who was formed from the dust of the ground or ashes of the earth. “Human” comes from “humus,” a Latin word meaning earth. It provides the root word for humanity and humility, which means earthy or grounded. We become more grounded when God puts us in circumstances of mindful or spiritual exercise. That’s what happens in Lent.
Part of our goal for the forty days is to become more humble, more human, more grounded in our own creation and more rooted in our faith. It can be harsh and dreadful, like a journey through the desert. During Jesus’ forty days in the desert, He faced Satan, the great tempter and deceiver. In imitation of Christ, we would do well to face some of the demons that torment us. As we exercise our minds in search of deeper understanding, we might ponder questions such as these: 1) If I had to bet everything on whether or not there is a God, on which side would I wager and why? 2) When I look into a spiritual mirror, what do I see that I most like and most deplore? 3) If I had just one last, brief message to give a handful of people, to whom, and what, would it be? 4) Of all the things I’ve done in my life, which is the one that I most want to undo, and which brings my happiest memory? 5) Is there any person or cause that, if circumstances called for it, I would be willing to die?
In such ponderances, we might better understand where we’re headed. The direction is, in some ways, set because of the path our ancestor-saints have forged before us. We are connected all the way back to Adam and Eve: the beauty of their creation and the sorrow of their sin. Just as we sprinkle dirt on graves at funerals or face the reality that, one day, our own body will be reduced to ashes, we also realize that we are part of a vast reality that is so much greater than what we comprehend. As the Bible states, we are connected with these subduers of the land and bearers of faith; though their bodies are long buried, their legend lives on. In Lent, we are reminded that in death there is life and when we die to one thing—perhaps the thing that the demon we face holds in front of us—we can find life through another thing that offers us grace or offers it to future generations.
Forty days can seem like a long time. We’ve got to take it one step at a time. We’ll go through it much as we go through the latest winter storm, much as we go through Covid-19, much as we go through other challenges that have been placed before us and that were placed before our ancestors. If something like ashes marks the beginning of this journey—something so human, basic, and grounded—then something like the resurrection might just be on the other side of it. The spiritual challenges in between are exercises in greater understanding. They unite us with great servants of salvation history. We hope, one day, to know them better as we walk with them in the communion of saints.