Words on the Word

Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:12-18: Between vestibule and altar, let the priests lament.
2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2: Be reconciled to God!
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18: Your Father sees all that is done in secret.

For Western Christians, the imposition of ashes has been linked to this day since the eighth century. The rite has come to define the beginning of Lent. Other celebrations connected with Easter carry different names in different languages, reflecting local perceptions. ‘Lent’ is itself an example. The English word, evoking the lengthening of days in spring, conveys the longing born of British winter gloom. Northern Europeans call the season ‘Fast’. Here, the chief reference is ascetic. Romance languages use variations on Quaresima, Latin for ‘forty’, which speaks of the finality of Lent, of what it points towards.

Ash Wednesday, meanwhile, is ‘Ash Wednesday’ to everyone. What is the meaning of the ashes that, today, leave their mark on us?

The Missal offers two alternative formulas for the rite of imposition. The first reads,

Repent, and believe the Gospel!

Repent! Review your life! Sharpen your focus! Such was the injunction with which Jesus began his mission. Today he utters it afresh. He asks us to shake off indolence, to recover our Christian purpose. In this perspective, our ashes display penitence for past betrayals, like the ashes in which the king of Ninive sat when he heard God’s judgement, ordering his subjects, and their cows, to put on sackcloth. By this outward sign of remorse, we humble ourselves. We consent to looking a bit ridiculous, in recognition of the foolishness of our wrong choices. The ashes proclaim that, with God’s help, we wish to see ourselves as we are in truth, without pretence, to give ourselves up wholeheartedly to the labour of conversion.

The second formula offered by the Missal has a different tonality. Its message is:

Remember, you are dust, to dust you shall return.

According to a legend that attaches to my Order, the monks of La Trappe used to greet one another saying, ‘Remember, brother, you will die’. They never did, of course; though the reminder as such is thoroughly Benedictine. To ‘keep death daily before one’s eyes’ is the forty-sixth of St Benedict’s 72 tools for good living. It’s about not taking life for granted, about living it graciously, deliberately, responsibly while we have it.

Today we keep death before each other‘s eyes, not in the hush of some lugubrious cloister, but in the clear light of day, before the altar from which the Bread of Life is given us. Remember, you are dust. Remember, you will die. It is a message our times are reluctant to hear. Our world is terrified of death. Death is the one human reality technical prowess cannot domesticate, though determined efforts are made, even close to home, to render it a matter of choice, not a gift or a guest come from another. There is therefore a great need, now, for our Christian testimony.

Affirming our mortality, we embrace our limitation. We own that, despite occasional lapses of delusion, we know we are not God.

In the ancient and medieval world, before the invention of synthetic stuff, ashes were the deadest thing to hand. Ashes bear the memory of fire, and show that the fire has died; from them, it cannot be rekindled. By our ‘Amen’ to ashes we profess that, yes, we know we shall die, that we carry upon us, within us, the mark of death; that we cannot, of ourselves, satisfy that wild, crazy yearning of ours to live forever. Only God can make that wish come true. And he will. He does.

That is what we recall above all in this season of grace. Throughout it, we bathe in God’s mercy. Lent is, as the Preface of the Mass proclaims, a season, not of mourning, but of joy. It is a time to rediscover gratitude. For to ‘remember that you are dust’ is to remember that God is God, a ‘God all tenderness and compassion’, a God who makes flames rise out of ashes, who forgives sin and heals sickness, who causes the dead to rise. And so enables us to face death, not as a faceless Grime Reaper but, as in the prayer of St Francis, a sister coming, when the time is ripe, with outstretched hand to bring us home.

If that is not cause for joy, a joy worth striving for, worth our ‘Christian warfare’, I don’t know what is.

Ash Wednesday in Trondheim in 2021, when on account of Covid restrictions we celebrated Mass outside. It was very cold, but beautiful. Photograph: Adressa.

Laudes creaturarum Sancti Franscisi

(an English version can be found here)

Altissimu, onnipotente, bon Signore,
tue so’ le laude, la gloria e l’honore et onne benedictione.
Ad te solo, Altissimo, se konfano,
et nullu omo ène dignu te mentovare.
Laudato sie, mi’ Signore, cum tucte le tue creature,
spetialmente messor lo frate sole,
lo qual’è iorno, et allumini noi per lui.
Et ellu è bellu e radiante cum grande splendore:
de te, Altissimo, porta significatione.
Laudato si’, mi’ Signore, per sora luna e le stelle:
in celu l’ài formate clarite et pretiose et belle.
Laudato si’, mi’ Signore, per frate vento
et per aere et nubilo et sereno et onne tempo,
per lo quale a le tue creature dài sustentamento.
Laudato si’, mi’ Signore, per sor’acqua,
la quale è multo utile et umile et pretiosa et casta.
Laudato si’, mi’ Signore, per frate focu,
per lo quale ennallumini la nocte:
ed ello è bello et iocundo et robustoso et forte.
Laudato si’, mi’ Signore, per sora nostra matre terra,
la quale ne sustenta et governa,
et produce diversi fructi con coloriti flori et herba.
Laudato si’, mi’ Signore, per quelli ke perdonano per lo tuo amore
et sostengo infirmitate et tribulatione.
Beati quelli ke ’l sosterranno in pace,
ka da te, Altissimo, sirano incoronati.
Laudato si’, mi’ Signore, per sora nostra morte corporale,
da la quale nullu homo vivente pò skappare:
guai a cquelli ke morrano ne le peccata mortali;
beati quelli ke trovarà ne le tue sanctissime voluntati,
ka la morte secunda no ’l farrà male.
Laudate et benedicete mi’ Signore et rengratiate
e serviateli cum grande umilitate.