|The Repentant King David (artist unknown, c. 1650)|
There’s a curious thing about Ash Wednesday. We all know people whose connection to the practice of the Faith has become somewhat tenuous. You will rarely see them darken a church door on an ordinary Sunday, although they will put in an appearance at Christmas, and maybe Easter. Interestingly, I see a significant number of these occasional Catholics show up in church on Ash Wednesday, or wearing the ashes of penitence on their foreheads as they go about their daily business.
As I said, it’s curious. The attraction to the joyous feasts of Christmas and Easter is obvious, but why should a lukewarm Catholic seek out a public proclamation of unworthiness, a sign in the middle of his face saying “I’m a sinner!” What is the appeal?
I think it starts with the fact that, on some level, we all know we’re sinners, we all have moments when, at least in our hearts, we can identify with the voice of King David in Psalm 51:
For I know my iniquity, and my sin is always before me,
To thee only have I sinned, and have done evil before thee:
That thou mayst be justified in thy words and
Mayst overcome when thou art judged.
For behold I was conceived in iniquities; and
In sins did my mother conceive me. (Psalm 51:5-7)
Even those who consciously reject God have at least a lurking awareness of their own finitude and imperfection (and the rejection of God may itself be an attempt to escape that awareness). If that’s the end of the story, then a man is a wretched thing indeed. That’s not the end for King David, however, who goes on to say:
Thou shalt sprinkle me with hyssop, and
I shall be cleansed: thou shalt wash me,
And I shall be made whiter than snow.
To my hearing thou shalt give joy and gladness: and
The bones that have been humbled shall rejoice. (Psalm 51: 9-10)
He trusts that the God who made him, who is all good and all perfection, can save him from his own imperfect self.
We who are Christians have that and more. Pope Francis says:
Christian hope is not simply a desire, a wish: for a Christian, hope is expectation, fervent, passionate expectation for the final and definitive fulfillment of a mystery, the mystery of God’s love, in which we are reborn and in which we already live. And it is the expectation of someone who is about to arrive: it is Christ the Lord who makes Himself ever closer to us, day after day, and who comes to introduce us finally into the fullness of His communion and of His peace. (General Audience Catechesis, 15 October 2014)
We know that Christ has already died for our sins and risen to new life. All we need to do is pick up our cross and follow him. Ash Wednesday represents the first step on that journey.
We can see a reflection of this same idea in the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (derived from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola). The first step is to admit that our life is out of control, that we are not in charge. Hiding from our problems and trying to cover up our failings takes up a lot of time and effort, all of it wasted on an impossible task. When we can stand up in front of a room full of people and say “I am an alcoholic,” or whatever our particular downfall might be, it gives us an incredible feeling of freedom. Yes, our life is still a mess, but now, at least, we can really begin to do something about it.
Ash Wednesday is like that first flush of freedom. It’s somber, because sin is an ugly reality in our lives, but it gives us a glimpse of freedom as well: beyond the Via Dolorosa and the pain of Calvary, we can see the Empty Tomb and the glory of the Resurrection. We know that the long, hard journey ahead need not lead to futility.
And so we should be happy to see our less devout brethren in church on Ash Wednesday. St. Paul tells us:
We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves; let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to edify him. For Christ did not please himself . . . (Romans 15:1-3)
We should welcome them, encourage them, and pray for them, in the hope that they go beyond the first step. And we should ask them to pray for us as well, because we, too, are often lukewarm in our faith; we, too, are dust, and to dust we shall return.