Wednesday, March 09, 2011

First Day of Lent: Ash Wednesday

"From dust you came and to dust you shall return..."
-Patrick Sier, '11
These are the words that have been spoken to me by various adults as  they rubbed the sign of the cross in ashes into my adolescent forehead, and at first glance, they're pretty bleak. A fourth grader walking around with a symbol of his mortality on his forehead seems rather odd. And they don't seem to make sense with today's readings. "Behold, now is the day of salvation." It seems as if there's a contradiction in terms. Few would equate salvation with a return to the primordial ooze. But, in fact, there's something redemptive about this dust. This can be witnessed in today's Gospel. It is one of the more storied readings where Jesus instructs his disciples on how to fast and how to "not be like the hypocrites." We are not supposed to show our suffering. Why? And why if we're not supposed to suffer publicly why do we wear ashes on our heads--a sign of our suffering? Because there is something redemptive and Christ-like about suffering.

We're not supposed to look haggard with our ashes on our foreheads, they're supposed to be the one symbol that we are, in fact, Christians. Rather than a depressing symbol of our mortality, they're rejoicing at the opportunity we have to fast and to be Christ-like in
our living. Ash Wednesday is the day where we recognize our salvation, and where we cease to care about what may happen to our bodies, but rather what happens to our spirit. It is the one public sign of what for which we are repaid by the Father in secret.
We are Christian because we acknowledge that we are from dust, and that we are subservient to the God who loves us. Yes, this still sounds like a rather dim picture of humanity, until you account for our heavenly reward. It is the fact that we are saved, despite our human nature that we are being reminded of. It is our reliance on God that these ashes signify and remind us of. The embrace of suffering is one of the key tenets of Christianity, and I believe, one of it's most appealing qualities. While we are not instructed to look for suffering, when it comes we should accept it into our lives as something to make us more Christ-like. As is often, said, it becomes our own personal cross to bear.
It seems at first glance as if this makes Christianity and Catholicism pessimistic. All they seem to fixate on is how we can suffer and that we're going to die. But herein lies the beauty. Suffering is a beautiful, transcendent thing because we are not suffering alone, but suffering with the one with whom we expect to live with in eternity. It allows me great comfort when I'm going through trying times to know that I'm not alone.

Suffering is the dark grace of Christian faith. The shadow of the cross encompasses both  martyrdom and the constant reminders of mortality encountered in our day-to-day lives. Lent is another instance of this remembrance. So often in our lives we are caught up in the seemingly endless tedium of work, rest and repeat that we fail to accept suffering as Christ does when it sneaks up upon us. We renounce things in Lent, not simply to stop eating candy or watching TV, but to give ourselves a foretaste of the suffering that our lives inevitably portend. Through this, we are allowed to share in the grief and anguish that make up our God and our faith. Lent is the time where we "focus on the pain, the only thing that's real" in the words of Trent Reznor. Because in our lives, indeed, we come from dust and to dust we shall return.
Lent is the time where we are forced to reckon with the fact that, as Christians, our joy comes not in this life, but in the next. It is a time to truly appreciate what ephemeral happiness we may find in our journey through this life. Yes, once again, this sounds bleak, but truly, how can we be anything but joyful when we have an eternity of pure joy awaiting us? We should take our suffering now as a blessing that we are allowed to share in the experience of Christ. 
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