3 Feb 2008
“ …but he kept calling out all the more …” (Luke 18:39) In the name …
Fr. Randy Calvo
Today we are only a few days shy of Ash Wednesday and the formal beginning of the season of Lent, an often misunderstood and under appreciated time of the church year. Ashes are undoubtedly a symbol of sorrowful penance in the Bible. Take a look at the beginning of the book of Job or read of the Ninevites in story of Jonah, and there see that ashes represent a humbling of ourselves before God because of our faults and failures. But the ashes mean so much more than this constant and over used cliché of our separation from God, a message that we know all too well and that we hear all too often. Our world is hard enough at times. We don’t need to imagine that God too is constantly angry with us. The cross is a reality because of our sins, but the cross is likewise a reality because of the love and forgiveness of Christ. We can choose to focus on one or the other, the positive or the negative, to decry our faults or to encourage our devotion to such a God, but in my book, when I think about a crucified God, I can’t help but see in the cross not the wagging finger of judgment, but rather the open arms of God’s love, not the message of separation but of relation.
We don’t deserve that love, but God has given it, and in that presentation Christ has revealed that we are more loved than sinner. This is what Lent and repentance can mean. In the very first book of the Bible, Abraham refers to himself humbly before God by saying, “I who am but dust and ashes.” (18:27) It has been a profound realization of our faith since its beginning that God has formed us from the dust of the earth and that is our ultimate fate, as well. In this sense, we are indistinguishable from all other animate and inanimate life. My DNA can be traced back to the simplest creations at life’s beginning. I have the same building blocks as algae; “I am but dust and ashes.” It is the choice of God, however, to intervene in our lives. His union with us makes us different than all else around us. It is the soul that takes us beyond science and psychology. It is the soul that can’t be deciphered by DNA. It is the breath of God within these bodies of ours that forms us in His image and likeness.
When the priest places the ashes upon the forehead of the faithful it is with the message: “Remember O man that you are dust and to dust you shall return, but your soul returns to God.” The ashes become the sacred reminder of our mortality and also of our immortality. They tell us that we will all go the way of the world. The miracle of physical life will pass. The reality of “I am but dust and ashes” is inevitable. Physical life has unavoidable limitations. It all ends at the grave whether a mausoleum or a ditch. But although there will be the passing of this body of dust and ashes, the breath of God remains with us forever. We begin Lent with the reminder that we are more than physical creations, but sometimes that reality has to be impressed upon us in a none too subtle way, and that’s the first reason for the ashes. Pay attention to our spiritual selves is the blunt and candid message as ashes are smeared on our faces. The body is a wondrous creation but it will pass, while the soul is a divine creation and it will last. Lent and repentance aren’t so much about depriving the body. No one here is going get sick or even weakened from our Lenten regimen. Lent and repentance are about giving the soul a chance to come forward and to grab our attention for a change. Lent is the sacred time to think about the love Christ has for us as perfectly represented by the corss, and it is our chance to love Christ back as we stand beneath the cross and look up at our Saviour.
No amount of sin and its separation can ever be greater than the perfect forgiveness of Christ crucified. In the Old Testament law, a red heifer was slaughtered outside of the camp of Israel and was then burned to nothing but ashes (Numbers 19). These ashes were kept throughout the year as part of the ritual for cleansing the people. They were part of the rite that purified them so that they could remain in the holy presence of God even when they failed God. In this sense, the ashes symbolize the divine act of atonement. As Christians we have come to see the fulfillment of all these old rituals in the singular sacrifice of Jesus upon the cross. He was crucified to take away our sins just as the red heifer was sacrificed to take away the sins of Israel. The ashes then come to symbolize God’s forgiveness, the offer of return, the ability to become whole again with God. So in this second sense the ashes remind us of God’s forgiveness, not so much to emphasize that we have sinned, but to emphasize that we can come back.
Lent is like that blind man of Jericho yelling out to get Jesus’ attention. Our souls are here, but too often we push them to the side and rebuke them saying, “Leave Jesus alone,” but the blind man in the story only yells out the louder when the crowd orders him quiet. Lent is our souls’ chance to be heard. Take advantage of that chance. I received this e-mail numerous times and I know many other clergy are using this story today also because of something called the Super Bowl. Three quarterbacks Bret Favre, Eli Manning, and Tom Brady, go to heaven to visit God. God decides who will sit next to Him by asking them a question. God asks Favre, “What do you believe?” Bret looks God in the eye and says, “I believe in hard work, and in staying true to family and friends. I believe in giving to others since you have given so much to me.” God couldn’t help but see the essential goodness in his answer, and offers him a seat at His left. Then God turns to Eli and says, “What do you believe?” Manning says, “I believe discipline, courage and honour are the fundamentals of life. I, too, believe in giving to others since you have given so much to me.” God is greatly moved by Eli’s sincere eloquence, and He offers him a seat at His right. Finally, God turns to Brady, “And Tom, what do you believe?” The quarterback of the undefeated Patriots, the team with the perfect season replies to God, “I believe you’re in my seat.” There are a whole slew of opportunities to push God aside and tell Him we’re more important. Lent is the chance to make Christ important again. Let us pray to not let this chance slip by unappreciated and unused, and for this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)