Blaise Pascal, PenseĆ© 347: “Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this. All our dignity consists, then, in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavor, then, to think well; this is the principle of morality.”

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Why Ashes?

This morning I went to the 6:45 a.m. Ash Wednesday mass at St. Anthony's of Padua, Fresno. After mass, a lay eucharistic minister crossed my forehead with ashes and said, "Repent and believe in the Gospel." She said it very, very quietly, and I might have missed the command, except that Monsignor Rob was booming it out so everyone in St. Anthony's could hear. I enjoyed that loud proclamation. My ash cross did not come out looking as neat as the one in the photograph. It was a smudge, really, and disappeared after I went on a 20-mile bike ride and took off my helmet.

Ash Wednesday has a mysterious attraction. People who are not Catholic come. Although they cannot receive communion, they do get ashes, and they want them. St. John's Cathedral, downtown, moves big crowds through continuous services all day long. Monsignor Rob said that the ashes were "an outward sign of an inner intention for conversion." People understand that. They have a hunger for God, which rises to the surface on special days. They want to be better than they are. The Church's mission is to help all of us to be better, by conforming ourselves to Christ, through a process of constant conversion.

But why ashes? Why not some other pregnant symbol? There is no doubt a history behind the use of ashes. In the Old Testament, people repented in sack cloth and ashes. But perhaps the use of ashes ultimately comes down to what we are: "Ashes to ashes and dust to dust." Ash is a symbol of death. The cross is a symbol of Christ's victory over death. Put together, on Ash Wednesday, the cross and ash proclaim two stark alternatives. On Ash Wednesday, we choose to die to our sins, and we choose victory over death by means of the cross. We go through ashes to life.

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