by M. Francis Mannion
Catholics who show up for work after Mass on Ash Wednesday wearing ashes on their foreheads will likely be thought by fellow-workers to be indulging in a quaint and harmless old Catholic practice with not much contemporary relevance.
Indeed, twenty-first century Catholics themselves might wonder if the Church could not find a better symbol to remind its people of the frailty of the human condition. Yet who could possibly look at the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and think that ashes are an irrelevant symbol?
We who live in the twenty-first century sit on some monstrous ash heaps. Many are old enough to remember Auschwitz, Belsen, and Dachau, where modern civilized people like us reduced millions of their fellow men and women to ashes.
And there is the terrible blight upon the twentieth century of Hiroshima and Nagasaki–cities reduced most immorally to ashes by the fierce demon of modern nuclear technology.
Though matters have changed dramatically in world power systems in recent decades, we should not forget that if ever a nuclear offensive took place, it would be relatively easy to reduce cities–indeed whole nations–to ashes within a couple of hours.
The environmental crisis reminds us daily that the air we breathe is full of our wasteful ashes. We are reducing the natural resources of the world to ashes at a rate unprecedented in human history. The future of Mother Earth is not at all secure.
And we cannot forget the ashes anonymously and unceremoniously made of the countless millions of unborn children each year in our country and throughout the world–the hidden and most dreadful holocaust of our time.
Who, then, can say that ashes are no longer a symbol that speaks to twenty-first century people? In truth, ashes symbolize the worst sins of the present age, the most horrible deeds of which humankind has been guilty, and the great anxiety about the future that haunts thoughtful humanity.
So when we receive the sign of ashes on the day that inaugurates Lent, let us think of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, and our waste of the earth, and the burned ashes of unborn children. We should take the ashes as a sign of the sins of our era, and of our sharing in often imperceptible ways in the attitudes that give rise to them.
When we receive the sinful ashes of Auschwitz, we are called to give ourselves in conversion to the brotherhood and sisterhood of all people, no matter what their race, color, religion, or sexual orientation–practicing conversion first in our homes, neighborhoods, and cities.
When we receive the destructive ashes of Hiroshima, we give ourselves to the work of peace and the radical attitudes of human fraternity and sorority. The Catholic Church–and each of its members and advocacy groups–must redouble their work in the promotion of political peace-making and non-violence.
When we receive the ashes of pollution and waste, we are called to commit ourselves to good stewardship of creation in our use of material goods, allocating our own personal resources to the relief of impoverished societies.
When we receive the ashes of the burnt unborn, we are challenged by that very gesture to commit ourselves to what Pope John Paul II called a “culture of life.”
The purpose of the Ash Wednesday liturgy of ashes is not to depress us, but to convert us. Those who live in Christ are full of hope. By the ashes of Lent, then, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” Thus may we rise, like Christ, from the ashes of Lent into Easter glory.
Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Salt Lake City. Printed by permission for Catholic News Agency