Lent, of course, begins with ashes. Having received them yearly and also having had the privilege of distributing them at Mass many times, I can say that ashes are truly a messy affair. When the minister of the ashes, whether clergy or lay, attempts to place them on a forehead, it is quite tricky to use the ‘right’ amount and to keep the ashes from flaking all over the face, or worse, the clothes, of the recipient. Then there is the challenge throughout the day to avoid brushing against the ashes on one's own forehead accidentally, making more of a mess. Thus, ashes are a messy business indeed. But that is what makes it so appropriate, and thus, such a powerful reminder to ourselves throughout Ash Wednesday; we receive ashes upon our foreheads as a sign of our penitence. They are not there as a sign to others that we are already holy, but are a sign to keep us focused on our desire to grow personally, as a community of loved sinners in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ, and of course, with Jesus. It is to remind us that the season of Lent is different than what came before, and – if I may suggest – it can be a time to remember that life is messy. Being a Christian is messy insofar as we are called to roll up our sleeves and act as a response to Jesus: living the gospel is messy. Also true is that God loves us as we are, in all our messiness. Trying to grow in faith, wanting to love God better, that is, to grow in holiness, is messy because it involves the work of trying and failing, reconciling, and trying again. However, because this is true, we must remember that the season of Lent is actually a joyful occasion.
That God would call us deeper by giving us the opportunity to repent, to become more generous with our time, talent, and treasure, and to grow in holiness, is a cause for rejoicing. In the words of Psalm 136, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his mercy endures forever.” The Psalmist makes a unique declaration of praise, joyfully extolling the boundless mercy of God. The realization that we are loved sinners should move us to desire wholeheartedly to make a deeper response of love to God. This response includes growing closer to God with greater intimacy through our prayer, asking forgiveness for our sinfulness through fasting, prayer and the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and movement outward in action to help our neighbors through works of mercy and almsgiving. But even in trying to fulfill these and our chosen Lenten offerings, we should do it all with a joyful heart. In the gospel reading of the Ash Wednesday liturgy Jesus said: “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting…. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that you may not appear to be fasting….” (Matthew 6: 16-18) While Jesus was telling His followers not to be hypocrites so as to impress people by our ‘holiness,’ it also seems to be a reminder to keep a balance between the sorrow we have over our sin and the sin of the world, and our gratitude and joy for the greatness of God’s mercy.
It would be good to pray with the gospel of Ash Wednesday (Matthew 6:1-8,16-18) reflecting on the purpose of the ashes we received even though they are no longer on our foreheads, but rather are now worn in our hearts. The Son of God, Jesus, entered into the messiness of the world when He became one of us, but He was not gloomy or depressive. Rather, His message had great energy: the joy of healing, wholeness, and mercy were the gifts He offered. It is for this broken world with its complicated and messy people that He suffered and died, acts unfathomable in their merciful, loving depth. We can also pray with Psalm 136, adding our own verses, always ending with the phrase, “…for His mercy endures forever.” This Psalm puts our response to God in perspective: we rejoice in the knowledge that His love and mercy are creative, without limit, eternal. Finally, we can join with St. Francis of Assisi in his Praises of God as a reminder that God is with us in this messy world, a cause for joy and a response of gratitude and praise:
You are holy, Lord, the only God, and your deeds are wonderful.
You are strong. You are great.
You are the Most High, You are almighty.
You, holy Father, are King of heaven and earth. You are Three and One,
Lord God, all good. You are Good, all Good, supreme Good,
Lord God, living and true.
You are love, You are wisdom.
You are humility, You are endurance.
You are rest, You are peace.
You are joy and gladness, You are justice and moderation.
You are all our riches, and you suffice for us.
You are beauty, You are gentleness.
You are the protector, You are the guardian and defender.
You are courage, You are our haven and our hope.
You are our faith, our great consolation.
You are our eternal life, great and wonderful Lord, God almighty,
May we have the courage to stay faithful to our Lenten commitments to increased prayer, abstinence, fasting, works of mercy, and almsgiving! May we call upon the intercession of Mary our Mother, St. Joseph, and St. Francis to guide us as we seek to joyfully live and share the gospel message of Jesus! May we have no fear of entering into the lives of those in need with works of mercy, justice and peace! And may we journey through Lent with joyful, grateful hearts! Let us continue to meet in the heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
1. Charcoal: Ashes.
2. Painting: Celia Thaxter’s Garden, Isles of Shoals, Maine (1890) by Childe Hassam. The vibrancy of the flowers and the beauty of the scene gives joyful praise to God. You can find more on this painting at https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/14930
3. My photo: glacial lake in the Alps, Switzerland. "Mountains and hills praise the Lord!" (Daniel 3:75) This is another great prayer of praise to use in the same way I suggested with Psalm 136. You can add your own invocations and end with "praise and exalt Him above all forever" as the Canticle does.
4. Painting, St. Francis of Assisi, by Jusepe de Ribera, 1591-1652. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest Hungary.
5. Painted image, The Galilean Jesus by Fr. William Hart McNichols. You can find this image at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-galilean-jesus-266-william-hart-mcnichols.html
Note: In compliance with GDPR rules, I wish to make it clear that I do not gather any information on any of my readers at any time.
Heart Speaks to Heart