Bishop Hying

What begins with the ashes of our sins, ends with the glorious, fiery victory of Christ within us

As published in the Northwest Indiana Catholic on February 18, 2018


      More Catholics attend Mass on Ash Wednesday - which is not a holy day of obligation - than they do on days which are. The experience of receiving ashes on the forehead is mysteriously powerful and remarkably popular in our religious imagination. I have long been fascinated and intrigued by this phenomenon and recently asked some folks what Ash Wednesday meant to them. Some of the responses were:

      “The ashes remind me that life is short and I need to do what God is asking of me now.”

      “Ash Wednesday reminds me how much I need God and how weak I am at times.”

      “It is a way to acknowledge my belief in Jesus and his merciful forgiveness.”

      In the Book of Jonah in the Old Testament, God sends Jonah to Nineveh to preach a message of repentance and conversion. Much to his surprise, the people actually respond and change their lives. The king of the city gets up from his throne, lays aside his royal robes, dresses in sackcloth and sits in a pile of ashes as a sign of humility and repentance. 

      Laying aside his grandiosity, this powerful ruler models for his people a profound attitude of surrender before the Lord. The ashes mark his weakness, vulnerability and need for God.

      One of the phrases proclaimed to the people receiving ashes this past Wednesday is, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” This statement may seem out of place in our sophisticated and self-asserting culture, but how fruitful to ponder our mortality, sinfulness and limitations. Acknowledging our weakness, fragility and vulnerability allows God to heal, forgive and redeem what is broken, sinful, wounded and dead within us. 

      Ashes on the forehead remind us not to pretend to be something we are not and never can be. We can never be independent of God, completely self-sufficient or closed in on ourselves. The ashes speak to us of limitation and need, but also possibility and hope.

      The ordinary course of nature is to begin with fire and end with ashes. We build a massive campfire, light our fireplace or burn leaves in the fall. We throw wood, paper or charcoal on the fire; the flames blazingly consume everything and only cold, dusty ashes remain in the end. Much of life is like this. 

      We begin with the fire of romance in a new relationship, the fire of enthusiasm in a new task, the fire of hope in a renewed prayer life, those flames burn for a while and then, oftentimes, seem to diminish and even extinguish. Our disappointments, defeats and failures often feel like cold, dead ashes on the heart and we may be tempted to simply give up and give in.

      This Lenten journey, this movement into Christ reverses this seemingly natural order of things. We begin with ashes and we end with fire! We begin with cold dust on our heads at the beginning of Lent and we finish gathered around the Easter fire on Holy Saturday night. We begin with the ashes of our sins and weakness and we end in the glorious, fiery victory of Christ within us. 

      If we are faithful to this process of conversion, the Lord will transform what is broken and dead within us into a resurrected and transformed life. We taste the unconditional love of the crucified and risen Christ and we are forever changed!  

      Lent is a blessed opportunity to sit in the ashes for a while, just like the king of Nineveh, to lay aside our pride, to ponder our weakness, neediness and vulnerability and to acknowledge our radical need for God. We tap into our brokenness, not to make ourselves feel bad or hopeless, but to allow the Lord to enter deeply within and heal us. 

      If we are sick, we need to go to a doctor, showing our wounds without shame, telling our symptoms without fear and revealing where it hurts without pretense. The doctor can only heal us when we have the courage to bring what is wrong with us into the light.

      Think of Jesus as the Divine Physician who will sit down this Lent and ask us to tell him where it hurts. The cure may sting, the medicine may not taste good, the surgery may leave a scar for a while, but we will find healing, peace, forgiveness, joy, reconciliation and salvation deeper than we ever have, if we let the Lord in. 

      The whole journey begins with ashes but will end in a divine fire within that will never diminish or burn out!  


       + Donald J. Hying

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