Lent is a transition, a journey of return and repentance. But it is not the final destination. Traditionally, as the ashes are placed on our heads, we are told, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This is a reminder of the death of our bodies, but we also believe that after death, God will raise our ashes. When this world passes away, our resurrected bodies will be united with our souls for all eternity.
Sometimes this reminder that we will return to dust makes us think about our lowliness. This is certainly a valid thought, as long as we don’t stop there. God chose to breathe life into the dust, and he chose to die for his creation. While the dust may not have any value of its own, the love of God makes it infinitely valuable. When we “return to dust” spiritually this Lent, it is precisely so that God can build us up again, righting our wrongs, to form our hearts anew. Scripture uses the image of the potter and clay to describe our creation (Is 64:8). God builds from dirt, ash, and clay. The more humble the medium, the more God’s glory can shine.
Think about ashes. Ashes are what remains after fire has totally consumed something. If we are to return to ashes, this means we must be consumed by the fire of God. Our Lord has the power to incinerate all our unhealthy attachments and all our sins. Scripture describes the purifying fire of God many times, including comparing souls to gold tested in fire (Sir 2:5, Zec 13:9).
Looking at our own spiritual lives, do we know what extinguishes this fire and what fans the flames of God in our hearts? This is where individual discernment is crucial. The attachments that hinder God’s work in the soul vary from person to person. Some of us might find that our relationship with God isn’t as high a priority as other more material accomplishments. Attachments to money, lifestyle, reputation, or certain affirmations may be hindering our full commitment to the faith. The symbol, ashes, is a powerful reminder that the things of this world will all turn to dust, and that we must focus on the eternal.
Hypocrisy also extinguishes the flames of God, as Pope Francis reminded us in his Ash Wednesday homily last year, adding “the Lord tells us not only to carry out works of charity, to pray and to fast, but also to do these without pretense, duplicity and hypocrisy.” It’s easy to read today’s Gospel reading, where Jesus condemns “hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them” (Mt 6:5) and think, “as long as I’m not standing on a public street corner and praying loudly, I’m OK.” Well, let’s look at the outward signs that signal piety in today’s Catholic circles: the visible statues, medals, and scapulars, certain styles of dress, attending only certain types of liturgies, carrying out certain devotions and novenas, even having a certain number of children. While none of these things are intrinsically bad, neither is praying on a street corner.
To root out our hypocrisy, we must discern why we do the things we do. Have we chosen certain actions because we want to project an image of holiness and piety? Are we avoiding our need to dig deeper into our souls to uncover the sins, weaknesses, and omissions that make us most uncomfortable? On the surface, we might think our priorities are in proper order: go to Mass regularly, follow the commandments, spend time in prayer—but have we contemplated that we might be attached to projecting outward holiness while inwardly resisting the burning fire of God that promises to renew our hearts in powerful and unexpected ways? Our experience of faith can become comfortable. It might even feel like it’s under our control. But the ashes remind us that we will return to clay. We must allow the potter’s hands to strip us of our blind spots and attachments and our flawed perceptions of holiness.
Today’s first reading, from the book of the prophet Joel (Jl 2:12-18), tells us to rend our hearts, not our garments, and return to God. The word “rend” means to tear something apart, and its connotation is markedly violent. It can mean to wrench something or do something that will cause great pain. The people of God are not to be as concerned with outward expressions—in this case, the custom of rending (or tearing) one’s garments in grief—and should instead tear open our hearts so that he can make us into a new creation.
The suffering that we encounter when we rend our hears and expose ourselves to the fire of God is not easy to discuss in general terms. The role of suffering in our lives requires individual discernment and is unique to every person. Some of us perhaps don’t value suffering enough and do everything we can to avoid it. This makes it difficult for God to prune and purify our hearts. Christ has redeemed suffering and it can prepare our hearts for a love that costs. On other extreme, some will turn suffering into an idol. This can lead to apathy about the suffering of others. It can cause impatience and a refusal to listen to others who suffer. What Catholic hasn’t at some point told our sufferings to another, only to hear a dismissive “offer it up” in response?
When we look at our own spiritual journeys, have we ever sought ascetic sufferings that serve as ends in themselves, a check in the box of “spiritual accomplishments”? Suffering that we experience through ascetic practices doesn’t bear fruit when it is on our own terms and not in response to God’s unique plan for us.
One ascetic practice that must be done properly to be fruitful is fasting. On Ash Wednesday 2014, Pope Francis explained that fasting “is a sign of the trust we place in God and in his providence.” He reminded us, “We must be careful not to practice a formal fast, or one which in truth ‘satisfies’ us because it makes us feel good about ourselves. Fasting makes sense if it questions our security, and if it also leads to some benefit for others, if it helps us to cultivate the style of the Good Samaritan, who bends down to his brother in need and takes care of him.” In other words, a fruitful fast is one that either reminds of our own insecurity and reliance on God or one that draws us to a deeper compassion with others who suffer.
Refusing food is not intrinsically meritorious, but it bears fruit when undertaken with a desire to foster spiritual detachment and to allow God to work in the soul. When we fast—or make any sacrifice—we must discern what that inhibits our cooperation with the grace of God. The quality of our fast is determined by the what it does for the soul, not the degree of our physical sacrifice. Ashes also remind us of this, because even the fasts, penances, and sacrifices we make will be one day be dust. The world and all its sufferings will be dust. Only the eternal will remain.
Let’s try directing our observance of Lent this year toward allowing the fire of God to consume our physical and spiritual attachments. Only he can bring forth a new creation from the ashes of our hearts.