“Remember man, thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.” — Genesis 3:19
Every Catholic just loves Ash Wednesday, just as every Catholic just loves Lent. Those were my thoughts as I slipped out of church, my brow smeared with that stark Catholic smudge. Passing the young priest in the vestibule where he stood greeting parishioners, I said ironically, “Happy Lent, Father.” He arrested me—and my sarcasm—with a fervent response. “I know! Happy Lent!” Then he added in a secretive manner, as though he had found a kindred spirit, “Lent is my favorite time of year, too.”
Ash Wednesday is nothing to be glum about, despite the seemingly dismal Ash Wednesday pronouncement and its seemingly dismal insignia. T. S. Eliot’s scattered, singing bones in his poem “Ash-Wednesday” remind us that the memento and the ashes are something to rejoice in as they point to a glorious hereafter. “This is the time of tension between dying and birth,” Eliot sings. The dust is not the end. The bones are only the beginning. The ashes are cleansing. Lent is a season of austerity, but not morbidity. It is a sober time, but not a somber time. Lent is for sacrifice, not for sadness. A time for life, despite death.
Under a juniper tree the bones sang, scattered and shining
We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other,
Under a tree in the cool of the day, with the blessing of sand,
Forgetting themselves and each other, united
In the quiet of the desert.
The song of Ash Wednesday is the dusty beginning of the sojourn through the Catholic desert of Lent where man draws close to God by leaving behind those things that distance him from God. It is a period of inward searching while looking ahead. It is for spiritual adventure: a striking out from the common boundary of the grave in quest of new life. It is a time for pilgrimage and for song. Ash Wednesday is the occasion to hazard beyond the ordinary shores of the spiritual life and undertake the consequence of crime and absolution through conversion.
But, as with any conversion, Ash Wednesday involves a great interruption, when business as usual is impeded by a jarring reality that cannot be gainsaid. It is easy to overlook the struggle all are challenged to participate in; many must have their bones rattled in order to face the facts of faith and the perils of redemption. The crux of Ash Wednesday is that life in death is mankind’s lot, and, therefore, man is called to renew his life out of the death of sin—out of mortal sin—to live bravely and boldly in a world of noise and corruption.
Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice
These days, Catholics may well feel like a pile of dead, dry bones lying in the ruins of a nation, a Church in disarray, and a culture in collapse. Divisive politics drain, rampant pornography corrupts, inconceivable abuses rear up, embraced relativism numbs. The symbolic qualities of Coronavirus seem a fatal harbinger. The ash crosses on the foreheads of “pro-choice Catholics” like Joe Biden seem to mock. But all these things, deadly and deadening as they are, are reasons to sing the song only Catholics can sing as they gladly bear the mark of death. We are dust, we are ashes, we are bones—but we sing because we will never die.
And God said
Shall these bones live? shall these
Bones live? …
And the bones sang chirping
With the burden of the grasshopper…
For all its tomblike associations, Lent is rooted in the brightness of springtime. The word “Lent” is etymologically related to the word “lengthen,” referring to the lengthening of days as the world shakes off wintry darkness and turns to the dawn in the eastern, or Easter, sky. In spring, men enjoy a lengthening of days, increasing light, and an unveiling, or even remaking, of the world. Lent, as a time of penance and self-examination, is when creatures awake out of hibernation into the dawn of the world and the Word—when bones sing in their graves.
As Catholics suffer through Lent, so should they sing through Lent. The paradox of this cheerfulness, this happiness that is holiness, is nothing to hide. God gives the gift of joy to be shared, and Ash Wednesday—even as it openly marks the faithful—marks the beginning of a time to share openly, to give, and to make fellow sojourners who mourn, “Because I do not hope to turn again,” the courage to turn, to convert, happy and hopeful. Though you keep your left hand from knowing what your right hand is doing, do let your neighbor know that you are happy even in the boneyard of the world. This is the essence of Lent and the secret of Ash Wednesday.
Ash Wednesday is a brutal reminder of what all men have done, what all have suffered, and what all have been redeemed for. The brutal beauty of Lent arises out of the reflection on times of transgression; we are to feel it in our bones, calling us to live our lives motivated by the recollection of our deaths and to work out our purgatory and our salvation in song. Ash Wednesday beckons us to live despite death, to live in death as Christ did, and to enter into a foretaste of the kingdom prepared for us—on earth as it is in heaven.
This is the land which ye
Shall divide by lot. And neither division nor unity
Matters. This is the land. We have our inheritance.
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