by Father James Chelich – 1995
Ash Wednesday is one of my proudest moments as a Catholic. The whole experience in word and symbol is a challenge to the way things are usually done in the world and, sadly, so very often even in religion.
In our parish we burn the palms right in the Church, in the plain view of all. The palms from last year are placed in the burning laver in the center of the assembly. The priest strikes a match and touches it to the palms and they flash up in a burst of flame. A billow of acrid smoke fills the Church. If anything says, “the wages of sin is death,” (Romans 6:23) this certainly does. The palms burn down by the time the priest finishes the blessing over them. After all, it doesn’t take long to burn down a world. The smoldering ashes are doused with a generous sprinkling of holy water and the assembly comes forward, as it does in a hundred thousand places around the world.
“The wages of sin is death…”
“The wages of sin is death!” Sin has consequences and the consequences of sin is death, death in a hundred different forms but death none-the-less: broken hearts, the loss of innocence, physical suffering, violence, the surrender of personal integrity, destitution, war and famine. “The wages of sin is death!” On Ash Wednesday Catholics face this unlovely truth squarely and acknowledge what others vest a great deal of time and money in denying: that the death is real, that it is all around us, and that it is the consequence of sin. Whose sin?
The pungent, acrid smoke rolls across the church. We are obliged to smell and even taste the truth. It is very much “in our face”. You cannot fail to hear the question being asked in all this: Who is responsible? The question that paralyzes millions of our fellow citizens, as well as whole institutions of our government and society rings loud in our ears: Who is responsible? All too often in our personal lives the answer is: No one is responsible! It is almost an axiom in our institutions of government: No one is responsible!
I Am Responsible
In a Catholic Church on Ash Wednesday person after person comes forward to accept a sign in ashes that says: I am responsible! I am responsible before God, before my fellow human beings and before my own conscience for the death at work in my life and our world. I am responsible! Catholics, this is our finest hour! It is for this, if for nothing else (though there is much else), that the world wants to see the moral authority of our ancient faith and Church broken.
Do you remember the story of Jesus’ encounter with the mob that goes out to arrest him in the Garden of Gethsemane:
Jesus, aware of all that would happen to him, stepped
forward and said to them, ‘Who is it you want?’
‘Jesus the Nazorean,’ they replied. ‘I am he,’ he answered…
Jesus put the question to them again, ‘Who is it you want?’ ‘Jesus the Nazorean,’ they replied. ‘I have told you, I am he,’ Jesus said. John 18:4-8
The little journey we Catholics take, by the millions, up the aisle on Ash Wednesday and the little cross in ashes we accept on our foreheads has the same effect on our fellow human beings, our society, our very culture. Jesus asked, who do you want to crucify? And when they replied he said,
I am he. On Ash Wednesday we ask the forbidden question:
Who is responsible? Whose sins are responsible? And we reply, I am. My sins are responsible. The effect is stunning on the moral stupor that weaves itself over our personal lives, our relationships and the social institutions in which we participate. We disturb an uneasy peace. We contradict the insane assumption that no one is responsible. We blow away the cherished illusion that what I say and do doesn’t affect anyone but me. We break the unholy social contract that reads: If you don’t hold me accountable for our culture of death, I won’t hold you accountable.
I Am Available
What about God? We do all of this in Church. We raise the specter of the death at work around us not just for one another, but before God. We confront ourselves with the truth that sin is the cause of this death, but we name this truth before God. I believe that God asks His own question on Ash Wednesday. While we name and confront ourselves with the truth that, “the wages of sin is death,” and ask the forbidden question, “Who is responsible?”, God asks the question on the other side of the coin: “Where can the healing begin?”
This casts a whole new light on our Ash Wednesday journey down the aisle. It is not an exercise in guilt, as some accuse, but an exercise in freedom and hope. In response to the question of responsibility we put to ourselves, the sign in ashes on our forehead says to us and to all: “I am responsible. My sins are responsible.” But the sign also says something in response to God’s question. It says: “Begin with me. Let your healing begin here in my heart and with my words, actions and attitude.” Ash Wednesday neither makes us a scapegoat for the world’s sins, nor seals us in a new bondage to guilt. Ash Wednesday makes us a beginning point.
Catholics, for this one day, wear your mark in ashes proudly. That mark is a word of hope for more people that you suspect. It says to everyone: “Here is a woman or man brave enough to face the death that surround us, brave enough to ask forbidden questions, brave enough to be responsible, a woman or man brave enough to place them-selves before God and us all as a beginning point for life.”
“…the gift of God is eternal life
in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
God not only asks His own question on Ash Wednesday, God has something more to say. Marked with ashes, we celebrate the sacrifice of the Mass. In the Mass God says: “I will meet you in the ashes.” At the consecration God says: “This is my body broken for you…this is the cup of my blood poured out for you and for all for the forgiveness of sins.” God is saying, “I will meet you in the ashes of the consequences of your sins. You will not have to find Me, I will find you.” The profession of faith we make immediately afterward is this: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” God has no intention of hanging around in the ashes God is intent on resurrection and life. He meets us in the ashes of the consequences of our sins. He recognizes us by the mark of the cross in ashes on our forehead. He engages us in our acceptance of responsibility and joins us to Himself in His own flesh and blood. Together we rise from the ashes. “Through Him, with Him, and in Him” we rise from the ashes: from sin to virtue, from death to life. Christ died to meet us in the ashes, Christ rose to lead us out of the ashes, and hopefully to draw some part of the fabric of wounded humanity with us.
“The wages of sin is death,
but the gift of God is eternal life
in Christ Jesus our Lord.”