Today we begin the great journey of Lent, a name derived from an olde-Germanico-English word for ‘spring’, as in renewal, rejuvenation, a pruning and winnowing, so that new and vibrant growth may take root and flourish. We deny our insatiable souls the pleasure of certain permitted but not necessary things, re-attune ourselves in our relationship with God through the dialogue of prayer, and force ourselves to go a bit out of our comfort zone in helping others, not least in little, daily things.
The ashes we receive at Mass signify the inevitable prospect of our death, at the time and place and manner that God so wills, the effect of our first parents’ sin, but a path to a greater and more perfect life. In his homily for the liturgy on this day in the Jubilee Year 2000, Pope Saint John Paul II declared
Earthly life is marked from its beginning by the prospect of death. Our bodies are mortal, that is, subject to the inevitable prospect of death. We live with this end before us: every passing day brings us inexorably closer to it. And death has something destructive about it. With death it seems that everything will end for us. And here, precisely in the face of this disheartening prospect, man, who is aware of his sin, raises a cry of hope to heaven: O God, “create in me a clean heart and put a new and right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your holy Spirit from me”.
In Man’s prayer to his Maker, there is hope, even joy, in the midst of this vale of tears. It is one of the many paradoxes of Catholicism (for deeper truths are often signified by lesser truths) that the ashes, the ultimate effect of dissolution and entropy, are also the sign of our reintegration at the end of time, when our bodies will be returned to us, glorious, perfect, radiant, enjoying the very beatitude of God Himself. The Second Law of Thermodynamics, pace the pessimism of the likes of Richard Dawkins, shall not have the last word:
Today too, the believer who feels threatened by evil and death calls on God in this way, knowing that he has reserved for him a destiny of eternal life. He knows that he is not only a body condemned to death because of sin, but that he also has an immortal soul. Therefore he turns to God the Father, who has the power to create out of nothing; to God the Only-begotten Son, who became man for our salvation, died for us and now, risen, lives in glory; to God the immortal Spirit, who calls us to life and restores life.
A final note: Father George Rutler has a very good meditation this morning, in his own inimitable way, which I highly recommend.
A blessed and joyous Lententide to all!