Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Dirt can be Holy Stuff

Ash Wednesday

On Ash Wednesday small children are thrilled to receive ashes. Adults too, I must confess. There is something about receiving sacramentals and praying with them which excite the Catholic imagination. Ordinarily deprived of the opportunity to receive communion like the adults, children display great excitement that they can get in line to receive something from the priest, albeit once a year. In my former parish of Visitation Seremban, a young child once complained to the grandmother, ‘How come you get to eat the good stuff every Sunday? But when it comes to me, I get the dirty stuff on my face. And I have to wait a whole year for this?’

How then do we talk about the meaning of ashes to children or even to adults? Ashes have traditionally been a sign of repentance. Although children generally know that they need to say sorry when they’ve been naughty, the idea of repentance may be too much to grasp for a little one who has not reached the age of reason (generally 8-9 years) and thus are not to be faulted for their actions.

But there is something more to ashes than just penance and repentance. It is a reminder of our mortality – all of us will die one day and our mortal bodies will return to dust. Our mortality then adds urgency to the need for repentance. We need to repent because we will not live forever. We must choose to repent today, because we are never sure whether we’ll live to see tomorrow.

Ashes from the burned palms of last year’s Palm Sunday carry the reminder that the grandiose hopes of triumphal parades can so easily turn to betrayal, persecution, and burial. Ashes, made by burning palms blessed the previous Palm Sunday, symbolize the transience of our earthly status. The body must fall temporarily into dust. This fact should serve as a challenge to spiritual accomplishments. Through grace we were "buried" in Christ that we may rise with him and "live unto God." "They are not a sign of death," Fr. Merton says, "but a promise of life."

It is interesting to note that no matter how beautiful, varied and different everything we see may appear to be, all are reduced to indistinguishable ashes when subjected to fire. A beautiful and priceless painting, a human body, stacks of money, expensive clothes and flowering trees, all become in-differentiable when reduced to ashes. It may normally seem strange to admire ashes. It’s just dust – no shape, no beauty, no use, no value. Yet, ashes take on an entirely new meaning when we view it through the eyes of faith. Ashes remind us that all the things which we treasure in this life, our money, our possessions, our environment and even our loved ones are impermanent. Ashes then become a sacramental reminder and teacher – for they teach us to understand that we cannot place our trust and hope in things which will eventually disappear, things that will become ashes. Ashes point to our own mortal lives – in spite of how long we may live or how healthy we may be, one day, all of us, without any exception would become ashes.

Ashes and the mortality of human life which it represents also have a democratising effect. Each of us may come from different social backgrounds. Some of us are rich while others poor. Some may hold very important positions while others perform clerical task and other manual work. No matter who you are or where you come from, all are invited to come forward to place ashes on your forehead. Rich or poor, young or old, powerful or weak, stranger or friend - all equally sinners in need of salvation. Notice that the priests are the first to have the ashes placed on their forehead, which serves as a reminder that we priests too are sinners. In this way, we are all equal in the eyes of God. We all require forgiveness and redemption. We all need to die to our old sinful self in order to be reborn into the new life with Christ. When all is reduce to ashes, there are no longer differences among us.

It is always a bit amazing how many people are eager to receive ashes. You wouldn’t think that we need or are eager to hear reminders of mortality. After all, we get those all the time. Loved ones die. Our own bodies show signs of wear. We are in the midst of broken situations and broken communities, and we never have to look far to see decay and corruption. Despite the many reminders of mortality which surround us, we also live in a culture of denial. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” simply puts the truth on the table. It is an awesome, if unwelcome, starting point for a relationship with God’s grace.

In the light of Christ, in the hope of Christ, our mortality is not something to be feared or denied. In fact, mortality, with its inevitable suffering, is something we share with every one of our human brothers and sisters. While we might think of mortality in connection with the isolation of loss, the dust we share can be a point of connection.
We are not at our best, we are not at our most glorious, we are not most fully human only when things are going well and we are lost in the rapture of joy. We may also be at our best precisely when things are at their worst. How we respond to suffering, disaster, and death can be just as glorious as our best hymn-singing.

This season of Lent is therefore an opportunity for us to die to sin. When we die to sin we also die to the illusions and lies caused by sin. Sin tells us that we only need to think of our own needs without having to think of others. Sin tells us to make a big show of our spiritual exercises e.g. prayer, fasting, coming to church etc. Sin blinds us to the kingdom of God and tempts us with worldly values that are impermanent. Today, on this first day of Lent, let us pray that the Lord will burn away our sins and the illusions caused by such sin. Ashes reveal the truth. As our sin and illusions are reduced to ashes, our focus is now turned toward God. In God, we shall find everything that is good and beautiful. In God, shall we have the promise of eternal life which will not be reduced to ashes.

To outsiders, Catholics must look like mad people who love to dirty their face with dust, dirt and ashes. We are often corrected if we were to tolerate messiness and dirtiness. But today, you receive just that license to get dirty. Dust is looking better all the time – especially when it is joined to God’s promise that even dust can be holy stuff.

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