February 15, 2018
I have always been struck by the fact that more Catholics go to Mass on Ash Wednesday, which is not a holy day, than they do on actual holy days. To be marked with ashes bears some deep spiritual significance and emotional power for many people, as we begin this season of Lent.
In the Old Testament, the king of Nineveh leaves his throne, takes off his royal robes, dresses in sack cloth and sits in a pile of ashes as his penitential response to Jonah’s bold proclamation of conversion. Ashes are dirty, cold and dead, the barren remnants of a powerful fire which has gone out. We begin this fruitful time of conversion by marking ourselves with a powerful reminder of our weaknesses, limitations and mortality, painfully aware that in some ways, we have all let the fire of God’s life within us diminish.
The natural order of things is to begin with fire and end with ashes. A powerful fire of wood, coal or leaves can flame for hours, throwing off heat and light, but when it is all burnt out, what remains is the ashy remnant of what once was. The supernatural order of God’s purpose reverses the course of nature. We start with ashes and end with fire! We begin this season with ashes on our foreheads and we will conclude with the Easter fire of the Holy Saturday Vigil. We start with our defeats, failures, sufferings and sins; we finish in the fire of the Holy Spirit and the victory of Christ over the forces of death.
This journey of Lent is more about what God wants to accomplish in us than what we are doing. We pray, fast and give alms in order to create a sacred space within us for God to work, but it is his grace and goodness that accomplishes conversion and new life within us. Like the Israelites, we move through the desert towards the Promised Land. Like the Prodigal Son, we come to our senses and return to the Father’s house. Lent is about waking up, coming home, and acknowledging that only God can gain the victory within us and through us.
This season is a prime opportunity to reflect on our Vincentian vocation and our presence in the lives of the poor. The more deeply we surrender to God, the more he will use us to bless others with compassion, mercy, joy and peace. As you practice charity and work for justice in these ensuing 40 days, give thanks and praise to the Lord for all that he is accomplishing in us, drawing us from death to life, from sin to grace, from selfishness to sacrifice, from ashes to fire! Let us pray for each other in this holy season.
Yours in Christ,
Bishop Donald Hying
National Episcopal Advisor