Today, we gather to wear the ashes that come from the ruins of the palm branches of last year Palm Sunday. What a contrast! What was once fresh and full of life, is now dead, empty of life, and just ashes. We can only remember how beautiful that day was. When we all walked the path, shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David. Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord, Hosanna in the highest!” What was once an event, is now a memory. The ruins we shall wear.
We shall wear these ruins, these ashes to remind ourselves of our own mortality. That life on earth is transitory not permanent, as such, every event, experience or achievement is fleeting. Someday, we too will be a memory. I am sorry for being dramatic. But while this may sound scary, it is indeed wisdom. Accepting our mortality helps us to appreciate the gift of life and to prioritise our values. It helps us to focus on what really matters; to focus on God, our destiny.
The ashes also symbolise grief. We grieve because of whom we have lost, that original good, that person God created us to be. Our friendship with God, our friendship with others, the joy, the happiness, the freedom, the peace we once had, all is gone, because we chose to reject God. We chose to follow our ways, instead of His Way. We chose to focus on His creation instead of on Him the Creator. Thus, we are giving in to all sorts of burden, dysfunctionality and evil.
Like the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32, our memories not only torment us, they also serve us. They remind of where we have come from or from where we have fallen. They give us hope. They tell us we have a home. We don’t have to keep sinning, rejecting God’s invitation in Joel 2:12-18, “’Now, now – it is the Lord who speaks – come back to me with all your heart, fasting, weeping, mourning’. Let your hearts be broken not your garments torn…” i.e. we must repent.
So, while the ashes tell us we are sinners, the cross to be traced on our forehead with ashes symbolises we have Christ, the Saviour. One who not only took on our nature, but also bore the consequences of our sins. One who understands what it feels like to be tempted, because He Himself has been tempted in every way like us. One we can confidently approach knowing that “He didn’t come into the world to condemn us, but to save us, to give us life” (John 3:17).
Although this gift of salvation is free, unmerited grace, it bears no fruit without our cooperation. St. Augustine puts it this way, “God who created us without our help, He will not save us without our consent”. So, we have a responsibility to respond to God’s invitation. We are called to translate our external observance of wearing these ashes into an internal compunction; where we feel the burden of sin and cast our sins onto Christ, for Him to regain us.
This is what Judah and his brothers did in 1 Maccabees 3:47, “They fasted that day, put on sackcloth and sprinkled ashes on their heads, and tore their clothes”. In other words, they rent their hearts, felt the guilt of their sins, confessed their sins and asked God for forgiveness. These ashes urge us to do the same. To ask the difficult question, “Am I doing what God expects of me?” Perhaps, today being Ash Wednesday, we may consider going to confession.
But there is yet another sense to the wearing of ashes. It marks the beginning of the Lenten Season. A season we are expected to practice three spiritual disciplines: Almsgiving, Prayer and Fasting. These disciplines address three basic temptations we all experience as human beings. The temptation to disordered attachment to possessions, things; the temptation to disordered attachment to pleasure; the temptation to disordered attachment to self-love, pride.
No doubt, some of us may be experiencing these temptations. We may be struggling with greed, or avarice. We buy things we will never use. And there is that hunger for more things. We feel by having more we will be happy. But we aren’t. Rather, the more we have, the less we become. This is the consequence of the sin of greed. It distorts the vision of who we are. Almsgiving offers us the alternative, “the more we give, the more we become, and the happier we will be”.
Perhaps, we struggle with pride. We are drawn to honour. We want to be recognised. We feel the world rotates around us. We want power by hook or by crook. Suddenly, we have all we want and even more, yet, there is no peace. How can we have peace when we are so self-indulged, when we have nothing to do with Christ, the Prince of Peace? Prayer draws us out of ourselves. It points us upwards, from where shall come the peace self-love, pride can’t offer.
Or maybe we are battling with pleasure. We can’t say no to our cravings. We feel we are free to do what we like, when we like and how we like. But we find ourselves everywhere in chains. We are addicted, abusive and literally in prison all in the name of freedom. How wrong have we gotten it all these years! Perhaps, it is time to fast. To discipline our desires. To experience true freedom, which is “the discipline of one’s desire to make the good possible and effortless”.
In a nutshell, the ruins of Palm Sunday become a sight that reminds us we need God. We can’t do it on our own. So, we must to take seriously the command of Jesus in Mark 14:38, “Keep watch and pray, so that you may not fall into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak”. The next 40 days of Lent offer us opportunities to strengthen our weak flesh, by bringing our real selves, our story to the Real God, who loves us. I Wish you a fruitful Lent.
Fr. Francis Afu