Dust and Ashes?

AshesMed2P1210554Today let us pause for a pastoral moment.

I want to ask a question about our proclamation about the Gospel.  But before I ask it, I want to underline that I think this is a real question.  (If I believed all the answers were obvious, I wouldn’t be maintaining this website – or my career as a seminary professor!)  I propose the following as a question to think about, not as a facile answer that everyone obviously ought to follow.


Supposedly there was a study several years back that asked American Catholics what their favorite sacrament was.  The most popular answer was, “Ash Wednesday.”

Today’s question is: what does that mean for evangelization?

Now, obviously this is something to laugh (or cry) about, since Ash Wednesday is not a sacrament, not even a day of obligation.  Obviously American Catholics are in need of serious catechesis, first, to know what the word “sacrament” even means, and second, to know that in the sacrament we encounter Christ in a unique way.  Every sacrament – especially the most blessed sacrament – contains Christ, the creator and redeemer of the world, really present to work the Gospel in our hearts, in a way that Ash Wednesday simply does not.  To say Ash Wednesday is your favorite sacrament is, on one level, to show that you have never discovered Christ.

Fine.  Point made. Ash  Wednesday should not be your favorite sacrament.


But as I received the ashes this year, in a church packed beyond the limits of the fire code, from a priest with a perpetual the-Church-is-such-a-pleasant-place dumb grin on his face, stretched even wider as he imposed the ashes, as if to say, “don’t worry! we’re happy!” I had this question about evangelization.

Every day of the year that priest grins welcomingly.  Give him the benefit of the doubt: his jokes, his pleasantness, his smile, these are all done in sincere hope that people will come back.

But they don’t.  The grins don’t bring people to church.  What brings them to church, in droves?  “Turn away from sin!”  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return!”

That’s very strange, isn’t it?  They say you attract more flies with honey than with vinegar.  But gosh, it seems like the only time the Church is truly popular is when she tells people they are sinners who are going to die.


One aspect of the popularity of Ash Wednesday is surely the sheer physicality of it – one could even say, “sacramentality”: a rich but sometimes confusing word.  Ash Wednesday lets people do stuff.  (Or at least experience stuff being done.)

Anecdotally, the main place I’ve experienced young non-Catholics asking to come to church is to light candles, to be in the gloom, to kneel in front of statues.  Very strange!  You’d think – at least, many people seem to think – that in our modern age, that stuff would be repellent.  But surely part of the popularity of Ash Wednesday is the sheer mixture of physicality and spirituality: smoke, candles, statues, kneelers, ashes!

Let me say that I think this can all be very superstitious: not necessarily a good thing.  Nonetheless, it’s strange how powerful an attraction it exerts on our contemporaries.  Maybe the tradition had a better knack for evangelization than we realize.


But at Ash Wednesday, the focus is not on candles – candles never draw people the way Ash Wednesday does.  Candles, in fact, are a lot more upbeat than Ash Wednesday.  (Aren’t they?)

Soot on your forehead.  “Repent!”  “To dust you will return!”  That’s what distinguishes Ash Wednesday – and what draws the crowds.

One of my favorite saints is Vincent Ferrer, a Dominican itinerant preacher in the fifteenth century.  This was his strategy: he went from town to town basically preaching Ash Wednesday.  With anything in history, it’s hard to know how exaggerated the numbers are – did he really draw tens of thousands to hear him tell them to fear hell? – but anyway, it’s historically undeniable that the guy was spectacularly popular.  And really . . . negative.  He preached the Gospel, to be sure.  But always a Gospel tied up with repentance and death and ashes.

Times change.  Vincent Ferrer’s time was miserable: full of war and plague and famine.  Miserable people, maybe, are more attracted to this message than are fat rich Americans.  That’s a good point: there’s plenty of room for asking what speaks to people in our time.


But the strange thing is, even today, what draws the crowds is Ash Wednesday.  Maybe, as in the time of Vincent Ferrer, instead of compelling people to go to Mass and receive communion – surely not the wisest part of our Ash Wednesday ministry – we should set up free-standing Ash Wednesday apostolates, with preaching about death and sin and repentance and opportunities to take on physical penances.  (The second most popular part of Catholicism?  Lenten penance!)

Or maybe not.

So I conclude with a serious question, a question to which I don’t know the answer:

What does the popularity of Ash Wednesday mean for your work of evangelization? 

Lent and Our Baptism

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

We now begin the great season of Lent. So what are we doing? Before we decide what we are doing concretely, it would be good to know what the theological point is.

Historically, Lent developed like this: first, there was Easter, the annual solemn commemoration of Christ’s Death and Resurrection.

Then there was a question of when to baptize converts. The theology of Baptism is about Easter:

“We are buried with him by baptism into death: that just as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection” (Rom 6:4-5).

Baptism is a death to our old way of life – a death united to the death of Christ, and therefore a rising to new life, relying not on our own strength, but on the strength of God, which brings physical resurrection as a symbol of spiritual resurrection: new life, moral reform, and above all new spiritual life, to call God Father and live as if we believe it. Baptism is the beginning of this new life.

So it made sense to celebrate Baptisms at Easter.


But how to do this right? Easter itself should be fully celebrated, treated as the awesome event it is. But we completely misunderstand Christ if we do not see the way that he transforms our entire life. His death and resurrection does something to us. Baptism, by which we are plunged into Easter, does something. It does not leave us the same.

Baptism is about conversion, newness of life. Baptism – like all the sacraments – is about Christ transforming us, changing us, filling us with the power of his Spirit.

So part of solemnizing Baptism (and Easter), part of proclaiming what it really means, is to enter more deeply into the life of conversion.


Lent is originally a pre-Baptism retreat. There are three key aspects of that retreat.

The first is prayer. Above all, Baptism is about being united to the Father, falling in love with the Father, discovering our happiness in the Father, as Christ is supremely happy in union with the Father. Baptism without prayer – joyful, adoring prayer – is meaningless. So it makes sense to prepare for Baptism by spending time in prayer.

But union with Christ, and the Father, and the Holy Spirit also unites us to all others who are united to them (the Church, in the deepest sense) and all who are called to that union (all of humanity). And so a second pillar of the pre-Baptism retreat is almsgiving: the joyful embrace of our neighbor, in all his need. Almsgiving is a nice approach: it’s not that we seek our happiness in our neighbor – we seek our happiness in the Father! – and so we focus on our neighbor’s needs, embracing him in mercy and charity.

Finally – and, really, third, though also important – we dig into this truth that nothing but God can truly make us happy. That’s the true meaning of fasting: to take a step away from the other things that we use as replacements of God. Fasting from food is a brilliant approach: because we do need to eat, so we can’t treat food as an evil. Instead, we can change it from being our end to being only a means, eating enough to keep ourselves going, but not seeking our happiness in food, and even accepting a little pain in our bellies.

Prayer, almsgiving, and fasting: experiences of what Baptismal conversion really means.

And of course, we all need to rediscover our Baptism, so the last step in the development of Lent was the rest of the Church joining the Catechumens in this Lenten practice, rediscovering our own conversion.


Interesting that it comes before Easter, before Baptism.

First, it must be said that grace is at work in us even before Baptism: it is the Holy Spirit who draws us to the font. We don’t magically begin our Christian life after we receive the sacraments. The “magic” is that Christ works in us to draw us to himself in the first place.

Second, we do receive grace in a new way in the sacraments. Part of the pre-Baptismal Lenten retreat is the experience of longing: longing to be better at fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. Yes, part of Lent is the experience that we’re not very good at this. Even for us who have been baptized, part of Lent is begging Christ to continue to transform us, begging for that baptismal grace to permeate us more deeply.

Third, our Lenten penance gives way before Easter joy. In the end, the Gospel is good news; ultimately the Christian is full of joy, not penance. Heaven won’t exactly be full of chocolate, but all our longings will be satisfied: the fast ends with a feast.

How can you think about your Baptism this Lent?

Ash Wednesday: Already, Not Yet


The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

JL 2:12-18; PS 51:3-4, 5-6AB, 12-13, 14 AND 17; 2 COR 5:20-6:2; MT 6:1-6, 16-18

What is Lenten penance all about? The readings from Mass today help us understand.

The first reading, from the prophet Joel, sets the tone. “Even now,” says the LORD, “return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning.” We tend to focus on the fasting, but let’s pause to think about the “weeping and mourning.”

Weeping for our sins is an interesting place. We mourn for a good that we love but don’t possess, or for something we had but lost. On the one hand, if everything were fine, we would have nothing to be sad about. On the other hand, we wouldn’t be sad about sin unless we did in fact love God.

We live in what they call the “already, not yet.” We already love God. We do, or we wouldn’t be here: wouldn’t be at Mass, wouldn’t be listening to his Word, wouldn’t be entering into the fast of Lent. But we also recognize that we don’t “yet” love God as much as we should – don’t love the people around us as much as we should.

It’s parallel to the situation I imagine all of us parents experience. I love my children enough to wish I loved them a whole lot better. Like Jack Nicholson in “As Good As It Gets,” I say, “you make me want to be a better man.” (The title of the film is ironic: I am not as good as it gets. I wish I were. He wishes he were.)

The heart of Lent is not fasting or hurting ourselves. The heart of Lent is “weeping and mourning.” Weeping and mourning because we love enough to wish we loved more. That’s why we fast: because we love enough to want to be better.


Joel gives us another really interesting angle: “Blow the trumpet in Zion! Proclaim a fast, call an assembly.” Doesn’t that sound festive? Lent is festive. Ironically, Ash Wednesday, along with Lenten self-denial, is one of Catholicism’s most beloved customs.

Lent should be festive. It’s exciting to try to do better, just like New Year’s resolutions are exciting, and fun – even though what any resolution essentially says is that I have not been as good as I should be. Lent is a happy season, because penance is a happy thing. And penance is a happy thing because it is about love. It is about loving enough to try to love better.


The short reading from Second Corinthians simply tells us that Jesus is with us. He “appeals to” us, “implores” us. We hear that imploring because we do love him, we do listen to his voice. But he needs to call to us because we still don’t hear his voice enough.

He appeals to us “not to receive the grace of God in vain.” That is, we have received God’s grace. His love is in us. Stir it up into flame!

This reading, too, contains the bizarre words, some of the most bizarre in the New Testament, “he made him to be sin who did not know sin.” Christ did not sin, but he suffered the penalty of sin, he did penance for sin: he died on the Cross for sin.

Here’s another way to put it: Jesus himself has come to the festive assembly of Lent. He joins us in our efforts to be better. We pick up the cross of penance, we set off to be better – and beside us is Jesus himself. He didn’t die on the Cross to impose on us a new burden, or to make us feel bad. He died on the Cross because we still have a lot of work to do in our spiritual lives, and he wanted to be with us, to help us carry our crosses.


Finally, in the Gospel, from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explains the fundamental dynamic of penance: “they have received their reward . . . . And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”

The question, always, is what do we live for? Do we long for applause, for human respect? Do we want to eat lots of ice cream and watch television? Fine, God will let us have that . . . though he made us too wonderful ever to be satisfied with those “rewards.”

Or do we long to know the Father: “show us the Father and we shall be satisfied.” If we seek him, he will give us what we seek.

This Lent, let us set out to know him better, to let love – of God and of neighbor – be all in all in our lives. That’s what fasting is really all about: focus.


How do you experience already loving God, but not yet fully? How does penance help you in that place?