Date Posted: Saturday 04 February 2012
Ash Wednesday – the beginning of Lent – is on 22 February. We hope you are able to come to one of the Masses with Giving of Ashes, at 8 am, 7.30pm or (at the University Chaplaincy in Bristo Square where all are welcome) at 1.10pm.
Ashes have traditionally been a sign of repentance and mourning. They inherently represent the passing of something vital – a tree which once grew tall, a house destroyed by fire, all that is left of a body after it has been cremated. Ashes from the burned palms of last year’s Palm Sunday carry the reminder that the triumph and tragedy are side by side in the life of Jesus as in our own.
On Ash Wednesday, as we observe the beginning of Lent, the season of penitence and preparation for Easter, the priest takes the ashes, and draws the sign of the cross on one forehead at a time. It is always amazing that people are eager to receive ashes, given that we already experience so many reminders of our mortality. Loved ones die. Our own bodies show signs of wearing out. We are in the midst of broken situations and broken communities, and we never have to look far to see decay and corruption.
But it is often said that there is grace in truth. Despite the many reminders of mortality that surround us, we also live in a culture of denial. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” simply puts the truth on the table. It is an obvious, if unwelcome, starting point for a relationship with God’s grace.
The ashes are given to us in the sign of the cross on our foreheads. This is not just a sign of mortality, then, but a sign of Christ, in his cross which means life coming out of death. With that sign, in the hope of Christ, our mortality is not something to be feared or denied. We are not at our best, we are not at our most glorious, we are not most fully human, only when things are going well and we are lost in happiness and fulfilment. We may also be at our best precisely when things are at their worst. How we respond to suffering, disaster, defeat and death can be just as glorious as our achievements, successes, and triumphs. Maybe the ashes are inviting us to have faith in our mortality, rather than to regret it.
As the prayer for blessing the ashes says:
Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth:
Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence,
that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour.