Ash Wednesday: Between Dying and Birth

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.

“Ash-Wednesday” T. S. Eliot

Ash Wednesday is the dusty beginning of the sojourn through the Catholic desert—of Lent—where man draws close to his God by leaving all else behind. On Ash Wednesday, the holy season of Lent begins its call for Catholics to make focused reparation for those sins the Lord Jesus bore before rising from the dead. It is a time to participate in His Passion through privation, penance, and purging. It is a period of inward searching while looking far forth. It is for spiritual adventure: a striking out from the common boundary of the grave in quest of new life, new discoveries, new worlds. Ash Wednesday is the occasion to hazard beyond the ordinary shores of the spiritual life and undertake the consequence of crime and the joyful extension of absolution.

Lent begins, as many conversions do, with a great interruption. The words of Ash Wednesday are indeed a jarring interruption:

Memento homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.
Remember man, thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.

So it begins, as it so often does: when business-as-usual is obstructed by a rattling reality that cannot be gainsaid. It is all too easy a thing to overlook the struggle all are challenged to participate in; and many must needs have their privacy invaded, their peace shattered, 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. As Christ won man life by His death, so must man renew his life out of the death of sin—out of mortal sin—and live bravely and boldly on in a world of guilt and corruption. Love alone bears life out of death, but even so, death never disappears. Once tasted, death’s flavor lingers on as a dusty reminder of horrors survived and that ever threaten. Memento homo. Ash Wednesday challenges Catholics to die to themselves that they may live in the glory of the Resurrection, embracing the penitential sentence of death in the hope of life, living in death through love.

For this reason, Ash Wednesday is nothing to be glum about, despite the seemingly dismal Ash Wednesday pronouncement and its dismal insignia worn over Catholic brows. As suggested by T. S. Eliot’s scattered, singing bones in his poem “Ash-Wednesday,” these words, these ashes, are something to rejoice in because they point to a glorious Hereafter. “This is the time of tension between dying and birth” Eliot writes. The dust is not the end. That would certainly be defeating. The point of Lent is not defeat, but victory—joyful victory. 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, but not for sadness. A time for life, despite death.

And God said
Shall these bones live? shall these
Bones live?…
And the bones sang chirping
With the burden of the grasshopper, saying

Lady of silences
Calm and distressed
Torn and most whole
Rose of memory
Rose of forgetfulness
Exhausted and life-giving
Worried reposeful
The single Rose
Is now the Garden
Where all loves end
Terminate torment
Of love unsatisfied
The greater torment
Of love satisfied
End of the endless
Journey to no end
Conclusion of all that
Is inconclusible
Speech without word and
Word of no speech
Grace to the Mother
For the Garden
Where all love ends.

Though Catholics are required to suffer through Lent, so too should they live and even laugh through Lent. There is no such thing as a sad saint, and Ash Wednesday is only the first challenge on Lent’s adventurous journey. It is in suffering, in the long pilgrimage, that the human soul finds the deepest spring of contentment. The paradox of this cheerfulness, this happiness that is holiness, is nothing to hide. God gives the gift of joy to share, and Ash Wednesday—even as it openly marks men of faith—marks the beginning of a time to share openly, to give, and to make fellow sojourners happy. 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 dust and ashes of the world. This is the essence of Lent and the secret of Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday is a beautiful and 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, desperation, isolation, and death, calling us all to live our lives motivated by the memory of our deaths and to work out our purgatory and our salvation. Ash Wednesday beckons us to live despite death, to live in death as Christ Our Savior did and 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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Sean Fitzpatrick is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and the Headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy. He lives in Scranton, PA with his wife and family of four.

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