What is this strange Catholic fascination with ashes? By day’s end, in the Church of the Holy Innocents three blocks north of Macy’s in Midtown Manhattan, priests will have imposed ashes on the foreheads of thousands of people: fervent Catholics, lukewarm Catholics, apostate Catholics, and non-Catholics! And not only in New York City but all around the world. What power does that smudge of ash exert? Better yet, why?
Consciously or not, I suspect the average person recognizes something primal in the symbol of the ashes, which hints at our own vulnerability and mortality, reminding us that even Americans after a century of science and progress live under a death sentence. Millionaires and mighty boxers die just as surely as paupers and weaklings. But this realization should not cause us to wallow in the macabre; the Church intends something quite different, something caught by T.S. Eliot in his 1930 poetic reflection, “Ash Wednesday.”
Eliot begins with the line: “Because I do not hope to turn again. . . .” What does he have in mind? The notion of “turning” is a Biblical concept. The Hebrew shuv bespeaks the attitude and action of “conversion” – that change of mind and heart which must-needs always lead to a change in action. The English poet knew that if this day has any significance beyond the superstitious or cultural, it has to elicit a change in behavior.
After Peter had denied his Lord, he “turned” and saw that sacred and agony-riddled Face. That turning toward the face of Christ launched Peter on the life-long journey of remaining “turned” toward the Master and away from the Evil One.
Today we must not make a merely token commitment to “return.” The Lord of the ashes demands a hearty and heart-filled decision to move away from any thing or person that might lead away from Him, the jealous God who insists on our undivided love not because He needs it but because we need it in order to be truly fulfilled and happy.
T.S. Eliot takes as his special model of life-long penitence the cloistered nun; for him, she is likewise a sign of hope. Contemplatives do intensely, in private, what the rest of us must be about in the hum-drum existence of daily lives in the world. But they do not do the job for us; they point the way, in very dramatic fashion.
The poet explains:
Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence . . .
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny
Every day is Ash Wednesday for the one Eliot calls “the veiled Sister,” and the prayer of such holy women is that our yearly observance of the occasion through silence and introspection, through listening to the Voice and looking to the Face, will see us through the remaining 364 days, but especially for the final day when the King and Judge appears.
Interestingly and wisely, Eliot takes some very common lines of Christian prayer and intersperses them within his poem, as much as to say that these words we speak so often and perhaps so nonchalantly truly need to form the warp and woof of our spiritual pilgrimage.
“Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death,” from the “Hail Mary.”
“Lord, I am not worthy, but speak the word only,” spoken before Holy Communion.
“And after this our exile,” from the Church’s night prayer to the Virgin.
“O my people, what have I done unto thee?” comes the plaintive voice of the God of the Hebrews chanted in the Good Friday Reproaches.
“Bless me, Father,” words used perhaps not often enough to move us toward the great sacrament of healing and forgiveness.
“Suffer me not to be separated,” the humble prayer of the priest before his reception of the Body and Blood of the Savior.
“And let my prayer come unto Thee,” the Psalmist’s plea, which must always be our own.
Several times Eliot begs us to “redeem the time,” reminiscent of the ancient Roman “carpe diem” [seize the opportunity], or better yet, of the ancient prophets. Indeed, in striking manner, Holy Mother Church today dons the prophetic mantle of Joel who, with urgency, in short, clipped and imperative sentences calls for a proper attention to the message of reform and renewal.
Her hymn of preference for this day is the haunting rendition of Joel’s prayer: Parce, Domine, parce populo tuo! (“Spare, O Lord, spare your people!”) St. Paul also stands in that prophetic tradition as he reminds us that “now is the acceptable time! Now is the day of salvation!”
With such exhortations ringing in our ears, we utter the words of Psalm 51 with deep conviction: Miserere mei, Domine, miserere mei. (“Have mercy on me, O Lord, have mercy on me.”) It is the adulterous, murderous but repentant David who speaks, and we ask that his voice become ours. For he was a man whose sinfulness was only exceeded by his honesty and sorrow. May that grace be given to each of us.
The message of the ashes, then, is quite simple. The Judeo-Christian Tradition – the Biblical way of life, if you will – is not cyclical but linear. The ashes are intended to break the cycle of sin and death, setting us on a straight course toward infinity. These forty days of prayer, fasting and almsgiving – spent in union with our Divine Savior – hold out to us the firm promise and the sure confidence of a death that is but the gateway to an eternity of unending, unimaginable bliss.
And so, the ceremony of the ashes is a most fitting prelude to the entire holy season upon which we are embarking, and a fitting prelude to whatever remains of our life here below.
*Image: Vanitas by Adriaen van Utrecht (or workshop), 1642 [private collection]
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Randall Smith’s The Man Who Shaed the Cross