Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.
My two-year-old daughter could not stop staring at me – more specifically, at my forehead – this morning. On it was marked a cross in ashes. As I write this, it is Ash Wednesday.
“Why?” my daughter asked. “Why do you have a black thing there?” She attempted to touch the “smudge” on my forehead. Why, indeed? What does it matter in this great big world of ours that a minister had just drawn a mark of ashes on my forehead – impossible not to notice – and told me to repent and believe in the Gospel?
The Cares of the World
It seems trite to say that we live in a “busy” world. It is not that the earth rotates faster on its axis, nor does it revolve around the sun at a faster clip.
What does seem to have sped up by gigabyte-leaps and bounds is the pace at which information and knowledge travel, technology develops, and human relationships change and morph into (many times) the kind of drama that takes on a life of its own. For those whose lives are immersed in social media and the culture of hyper information, one can be in the know about everything and still not really know a thing. It is a world that does not seem to be able to catch a breath but always talks about the need to take a break and enjoy life.
The cares of the world are many and varied, sensual and often rushed, panicked and steeped in bitter hopelessness. It has been said that desperate times call for desperate measures, and this is true for those who have forgotten or choose to ignore the finitude of our earthly existence and the infinite goodness and mercy of God.
Dust- From Whence We Came
Dust is defined as follows:
- earth or other matter in fine, dry particles.
- a cloud of finely powdered earth or other matter in the air.
Being a noun, we know that dust is a thing. It exists and is something: fine, dry particles. It is the stuff that collects on surfaces that do not get cleaned or swept very often. (I must confess: through personal experience, my home and I are very familiar with dust.) It is not pleasant, nor is it desirable. Dust is something one tries to get rid of, especially when one is expecting guests at home (guilty!).
Yet, we are reminded especially on Ash Wednesday of the significance of dust in our mortal lives. The alternative to “Repent, and believe in the Gospel”, when the faithful are marked with blessed ashes, is: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust, you shall return.”
This reminder is not random or made up. It comes from scripture, and refers to a part of what God said to Adam after he and Eve committed the original sin:
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.
Pride of Life
So much of what goes on in the world these days is about primping and preening. One must always present one’s best image in keeping with one’s brand, whatever and however that may be. Pictures posted for everyone’s friends and followers to see are carefully curated, and the nail-biting angst of not getting enough likes is, unfortunately, very real. What we wear, what we eat, where we go and what we have, how witty we think we sound and how beautiful and enviable we think we are – these matter in a world wherein everything in it could all collectively turn into dust, just like that.
We have all come from dust, and to dust we shall return at the end of our earthly life. It does not mean that our present life does not count for much. Dust is material, and for as long as we are alive on earth, our existence is a union of the physical and the spiritual. It is through our senses that we experience the world, relate to each other, learn, work, feel and even pray! The irony of mere dust making up that which becomes a source of pride for man speaks to God’s goodness and loving mercy. To have created man out of nothing, elevating our nothingness into something He loves unconditionally is nothing short of awesome.
I Am Nothing, But I Am Loved
Today, as I received the mark of a cross of ashes on my forehead, many things occurred to me. Traditionally, ashes are a symbol of repentance for our sinfulness. It is a reminder of our mortality. I knew these things and was mindful of the solemn nature of the beginning of Lent.
What I did not expect was this quiet sense of joy that was like an uninvited but welcome guest who suddenly shows up just in time for supper. Make more room at the table – there is always room for joy!
So, why joy? I was in fact reminded of my nothingness and dusty beginnings if you will. The many times I have turned my back on our Lord, willfully or forgetfully, impatiently and impetuously, weighed heavily in my mind and heart. Yet, my Father God does not tire of me and takes me back over and over again. (Thank God for the sacrament of confession!) He does not forsake me even if I have done so many times over to Him. My whole life is a historical accounting of God’s goodness and mercy. And that is why joy could not help but permeate my soul and my being at Mass today, Ash Wednesday!
The Sign of the Cross
The ashes I received were used to mark me with a cross. For those who try to follow Christ, the cross is the way to share in His suffering and His love – to be united to Him. I belong to Christ!
The ashes remind us of the many transgressions which we have committed against God, while the cross reminds us of how Jesus died and resurrected! This is the sign of the cross: it is a sign of faith, hope, and love. It is a visible sign of what really matters in life. This earthly and vibrant life, full of highs and lows, worries and contradictions, happiness and sorrows – this is what we know and where we find ourselves. What we do matters in so much as it leads us closer to God and to fulfilling His will.
How do I make the most of what I have and that which God has placed in my life? How am I a visible sign and witness of God’s love and work in the world?
Christian Joy and The Cross
“I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance and to amend my life. Amen.”
That is part of the prayer I learned over 41 years ago. It is the same prayer I have taught each of my children in preparation for their First Confession, and it is the same one I pray every time the priest asks me to make an act of contrition. I cannot say this prayer without a sense of peace and joy in my heart, knowing that I have just been reconciled with He Who is infinite Love and Mercy.
It is this same joy, which I now realize must accompany my true sorrow for my sins and my efforts to make the best use of this Lenten season to prepare well for Easter and the rest of my life. Christ’s cross – His death and resurrection – makes it possible for me to bear my own cross. As St. Paul wrote to the Colossians, “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh, I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.
As dust is very much a part of our everyday lives, so is the cross. It is one marked by true love, and with it comes joy and peace.
Sometimes we hear love described (you’ll have heard me mention this more than once) as if it were a movement towards self—satisfaction, or merely a means of selfishly fulfilling one’s own personality.
—And I have always told you that it isn’t so. True love demands getting out of oneself, giving oneself. Genuine love brings joy in its wake, a joy that has its roots in the shape of the Cross.
St. Josemaria Escriva, “Dazzled”, The Forge, point 28