Ash Wednesday: Leaving the Guided Tour

Remember that you are dust...

“And your Father who sees in secret will repay you…
your Father who sees in secret will repay you…
your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.” Mk 6:1-6, 16-18

What are we to do with the hypocrisy of this day? I mean it’s the only day that Jesus gives us the (very) practical advice of washing our face and it’s the one day we go ahead and smear ourselves with ashes! I think the only possible answer is to remember that the point of His advice is to remind us that what’s important is who we are before God, and not who we make ourselves out to be before other people.

So, the question becomes: What are we doing at Church today? What do we come for? Why didn’t we stay home to pray? What are we doing in receiving ashes on our forehead?

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There is a story about St. Ignatius: shortly after his conversion (but before he began the Society of Jesus) he went to the Holy Land to figure out what to do with his life. In his autobiography he tells us that while there he essentially ditched the tour-group (the Franciscan ecclesial authorities who were trying to protect him) because he wanted so badly to go to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

They say that, in the floor of the Holy Sepulcher, you can see the imprints made by Christ’s feet at the moment of the Ascension. Ignatius wanted to kneel on the ground to place his hands in the dust of those footprints so that when he arose he would know that he was headed in the direction of Christ.

Our own story is not unlike Ignatius’.  We too have left the tour, we too have wandered away from the safety of home, we too have turned away from the direction of Christ and wonder now which way to go.

We have hidden our face from the one who lifted us out of the dust in the first place.

So today is a day of homecoming, a day of re-orienting, of turning around to face again the God who loves us. Today is a day of remembering where we have come from and where we’re headed. The readings from today’s Mass remind us of the same, in the words of Joel: “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart…” And then St. Paul reminds us: “Now is a very acceptable time; now is the day of salvation.”

Today we turn toward Easter, but even now we are welcomed home into the loving arms of God. Everyday in prayer, especially in that great prayer of Ignatius we call the Examen, we too are invited to kneel down and to place our hands into the dust and the ash of our lives.  In so doing we hope to orient ourselves more and more in the direction of Christ.

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But what we do today is not just about our lives, it’s also about the life of God.

Today we also, in a quite literal way, put our hands also into the dust of the Paschal mystery. We put our hands into the dust of God’s life. The ashes we bear on our foreheads are the burnt remains of the palms of last year’s Easter. So today, in this place and at this moment we kneel yet again before our loving God and are reminded of the hands that molded us out of the clay and the feet that led us out of the darkness, and the love that invites us again and again and again to turn around and know ourselves—not for what we do but simply for who we are—to know ourselves beloved.

 Repent and believe in the Gospel. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Be courageous today.  Turn yourself to the face of God and do not be afraid.  This is the gospel today.  This is very good news. There is no reason to wait, not forty days, not forty minutes, not forty seconds.

So yes, we have forty days to get ready for Easter, but “even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart…” (Joel 2:12-18).

Even now.

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