Friday’s tragic death of young Georgian Nodar Kumaritashvili just as the Winter Olympics were opening reminds us of the shadow hanging over everyone who begins the race from cradle to grave.
And the release of never-before-published aerial photographs of the Twin Towers on 9/11 confronts us with what we pray every year on Ash Wednesday: “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” In one particularly disturbing image, the first tower flowers into an expansive cascade of grey powered death, while yet another shows the gargantuan dust cloud engulfing both land and sea. All that was life in those buildings had disintegrated to cinders.
Last summer I was presented with a small container of ashes. We Catholics are counseled to inter our loved ones’ remains in a safe, dignified, and consecrated place. But since some ashes, somehow, were kept separate from the urn, I chose to treasure this reminder of my father’s physical presence and of the fate that awaits me as well.
Lent begins this week. Spanning six weeks from Ash Wednesday (Feb. 17) to Easter, it’s not just a Catholic thing; Lent is for everyone. It’s a pregnant time full of potential for personal reawakening. It’s a chance to slow things down and to re-evaluate our values and priorities. It’s a challenge to focus less on the world outside and more on the interior. It’s an opportunity to realize how much it cost our Lord Jesus Christ to reconcile us with the Father.
While not all of us are Christians, I’m sure we can all agree that our families, our communities, and our world need healing and renewal.
That’s what Lent is all about. It works like the season of Spring in our hearts. All we need to do is to cooperate with the process, taking what is dead and restoring it to life, replacing the things that kill with what gives life, transforming the darkness of our souls into light.
But to reap the benefits of Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection, we have to acknowledge our fundamental poverty. To experience the transforming power of Pentecost, we must look face-to-face at the truth of the human person deprived of the Life-giving Spirit.
For Latinos, Ash Wednesday is huge. More people visit the church on this day than on any other event of the year. Even Our Lady of Guadalupe’s festivities don’t bring in quite as many faithful. Why?
Superstition might motivate some Hispanics, as with any other race, for fear that failing to get signed with ashes might jeopardize one’s good standing with God. Some people still fear the wrath of an angry deity bent on taking vengeance on his wayward creatures. Still others might receive the marking as a kind of life-insurance policy.
Whatever their reasons, they come in great numbers and often don’t want anything more than a dark grey cross on their foreheads. In Tijuana, I recall spending up to twelve hours signing people’s brows with the blessed palm-leaf ashes and repeating the same words over and over, until my mouth was dry and my thumb was sore. But I never judged those who came. It takes humility to walk back into the streets, the businesses, and the places of study smudged with soot, having heard the words, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”
And there’s no better way to begin the six-week journey to Calvary and the empty tomb than by confessing to the whole world that we all desperately need to be redeemed. There’s no surer way to put all our denial to death than to stare into our waiting graves and wonder, once again, what will become of our bodies and souls when we die.
I’d much rather deal with over-flow crowd on Ash Wednesday than the consequences of a soul filled with pride and self-satisfaction.
Take, for example, the wanna-be gang bangers and care-less idiots who poured out alcoholic drinks and smoked marijuana right beside the crowd of 200 as we buried a 24-year old yesterday. He’d been shot just a few days before. From their behavior, I wouldn’t have been surprised if one or more of them had committed the crime. I’d already made it abundantly clear during the funeral mass in our church that those who had done the same thing the night of our vigil were disrespecting God, the young man’s family, and the deceased himself. Gang activity, too, I said, is a sign of perpetual immaturity and the outright rejection of God, of Redemption, and of Life Itself.
“Ni modo” (“whatever”), their arrogant acting-out broadcasted. In fact, later a family told me that they’d gotten completely out of hand after I left, even knocking over a grave stone. I was glad not to have been on the scene when that happened, as I would gladly have put a major dent in a head or two with that very same marker. Whatever.
Some people rejoice in their miserable unredeemed dirt and spend their lives cultivating condemnation. That’s their choice, and they reap the harvest of corruption. I hope that you’ll take advantage of every opportunity this Lent to draw closer to the God of Love, so that as the inevitable day of our dying draws closer to us, we will be increasingly filled with the Life that never ends.