Spoiler alert! This is for the 7pm Ash Wednesday Mass. Do not read if you will be attending that Mass. :)
Ashes on the forehead. It shouts to the world CATHOLICISM! And maybe at your workplaces today, you saw Catholics with the ash cross on their foreheads and maybe you chuckled at That Guy who was “got real good”— but you felt kind of naked and little less Catholic without it, so hey—just to let everyone know, I’m getting ashes tonight, ok?
But we are not Pharisees. We’re not saying, “hey, look, I’m Catholic. See the ashes?” No, we’re saying, “See the ashes? I’m a sinner.”
And I would gather that is really why you’re here. You’ve messed up. We’ve all royally messed our lives up. And we’re sorry.
But the question is: are we sorry enough to change our lives?
And are we hopeful enough to believe that our lives can change?
You know the story of Cinderella, right? Girl, evil step-sisters, wants to go to the ball… But do you know what her name means? It’s from the Latin (and of course it is). Ella (puella) means girl and cinder (cinus) means ash. Literally, Cinderella is the girl of ashes. Roll credits.
Why do I mention her? One, because now when you see Cinderella, you will think of Ash Wednesday. But two, it is not enough to be people of ashes who feel apologetic in a general kind of way such that we come here tonight and tomorrow return to business-as-usual after washing our faces with soap and water. We are coming up to receive ashes because we want our lives to change.
And let’s be honest. Life isn’t transformed by giving up chocolate. Life is transformed by weighty things like the Cross.
Best. Lent. Ever.
One of my best-Lents-ever came when I resolved that I was going to become as holy as Mother Teresa. I gave up sweets. I fasted. I took cold showers. I prayed all twenty mysteries of the rosary each day. I was a holy roller. But by the end of week two, I was eating chocolate cake and taking hot showers again—and I was more miserable than when I started. So, in week three I started up again with renewed vigor—because dangit, I got this!—only to fall again. And so I got discouraged. And I gave up. And I got angry that I couldn’t change my life. In fact, I started to believe that my life couldn’t change. I hate Lent.
At the end of that Lent, I went crawling to confession (quite reluctantly might I add) and I told the priest that I stunk at Lent. Because #TheCross.
He told me I stunk at it because I was trying to carry it by myself. I was rich in ambition but poor in grace. After all, he said, if I was so imperfect at life in the first place, then what made me think that my plans for changing my life were going to be so perfect? Perhaps I needed to stop being so prideful in my planning and more humble in my begging.
If my life should change, it would only happen when I was a beggar enough to seek Jesus’ daily help in changing it.
Life is transformed by the Cross.
It’s Not About You
One of the reasons why that was the best Lent ever was not only because I was humbled, but also because it changed my understanding of Lent for every year thereafter. And you know you’ve had a good Lent when you realize you are being taken to a whole new level. And that whole new level began the following Lenten Ash Wednesday when I realized that everyone around me was getting ashes on their heads.
Have you ever noticed that?
So often, I turn Lent into a giant Me Project, a self-improvement plan for me. And because I make it all about what I am doing for Lent and how I am going to be a better person by the end of Lent by giving up chocolate or coffee or breathing, I had totally overlooked the Lenten suffering of others. My Lenten practices were not only not making me holy, they were also making me selfish. I realized that maybe I should spend my Lent looking outwards and jumping at chances to comfort others and be a patient voice during impatient times.
After all, hadn’t I learned that I couldn’t do this myself? Hadn’t I learned that holiness does not come in isolation? Maybe my embrace of the Cross this Lent would happen when I bent down to help pick up another person from the weight of their own Cross.
So, what am I doing for Lent this year? Nothing.
I’m going to sit with Jesus and do nothing. Because I need to slow down and do nothing and learn to trust Him and to let Him guide me. Because I’m a human being, not a human doing. And because there is nothing more frightening to a man who bases his worth on doing things than doing nothing. I need Him to carry my Cross.
And then, when that happens, I will be free to carry the cross of others.
I will have pulled the dandelion from the root instead of just trimming off the tops like I had been doing Lent after lousy Lent. The attachment to stuff and junk and sin and all the other whatnot—all of that will fall into place because I will have gotten this first step right. A poor beggar for grace going to be with his Savior.