Catholic Homily/Reflection
Ash Wednesday
February 6, 2008

“Non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere.” (Not to laugh at, nor to mourn for, neither detest, but to understand) Spinoza

Ashes on the first day of Lent for the great tradition of the Eastern and Western Christian churches are one of those rituals and practices that are all too easy to deride, deplore, or detest – at least from the postmodern, and more so – biblical fundamentalists’ point of view. After the spate of anti-christian (and anti-catholic) literature over the past decade, not excluding the extremely popular Da Vinci Code, it is easy especially for those who have an axe to grind against the institutional church (which they mistake for the essentials of Christianity) to take everything Dan Brown and others say hook, line, and sinker, never mind the overwhelming historical and scholarly evidences to the contrary. It is still to be wondered at how come people do not react as vehemently against the lies peddled by the Da Vinci hoax, as they did against the mostly Bible-based “Passion of Christ” that hogged the movie and TV screens and talk-shows last year.

It is easy for anyone unfamiliar with the wider origins (both Biblical, cultural, and historical) of Church worship and rituals to laugh at, mourn for, and detest symbolisms, sacraments, and sacramentals that are not clear to people who, like Dan Brown, have already decided to close one eye on the bigger context and fuller matrix of the truth.

The church’s practice of imposing ashes on the forehead is one such snippet of truth that needs to be understood, not deplored, nor detested. And understanding entails literally “reading into” things, placing them in their original context, thus allowing one to see aspects of meaning that may now be hidden from the eyes of the entertainment, information-glutted postmodern woman or man.

There are those who like Brown, take resort to rehashing old issues that have been settled long ago, like for example, the issue of the so-called “apocryphal gospels” referred to by him as the “80 gospels which have been suppressed” by the “Vatican” in order to hide the “truth” about Mary Magdalene. There are those who, on the other hand, see nothing else apart from the Bible (or their chosen translation-interpretation) as the source of their truth. If something is not found therein, it should not be part of one’s belief system.

Ash Wednesday opens the season of Lent with one such ritual that is easy to pass off as unbiblical. (The word “trinity” is not found anywhere in the Bible, but the teachings on the “trinity” are clear from the Bible. Whilst everything in the Bible is true, not everything true is in the Bible!) But the practices of putting a sign on the forehead, and the sign par excellence of ashes as a symbol of penance and repentance both jut right out of Old Testament times as is clear from so many passages from the Hebrew Scriptures (Ezekiel 9:4-6, I Samuel 4:12, 2 Samuel 1:20; 13:19 etc). The idea of being “marked for God” on the other hand, is something that is clear from several passages from the New Testament (Rev 7:3; 9:4; 14:1)

But I digress too much from what I would want to share on today.

I take my cue from today’s alternative opening prayer. “Father in heaven, the light of your truth bestows sight to the darkness of sinful eyes. May this season of repentance bring us the blessing of your forgiveness and the gift of your light.”

It does not take too much a stretch of our imagination to realize how much darkness there is in our world. There is darkness in bigotry, and in all forms of bias and prejudice in the world. There is darkness in a culture that, contrary to its avowed protestations and proclamations of democratic “values,” this “death-denying,” postmodern culture, really has fallen in love with violence, as is evident in movies and canned shows for the boob tube. There is darkness in a world that, in the words of Pope John Paul II, has chosen the path of the culture of death, a culture that has denied the existence of the reality of sin.

Ash Wednesday, though, was never meant to be dour and sour primarily. It is a reminder first and foremost, a reminder that as creatures endowed with personal freedom, salvation is something that we ought to do in cooperation with the Savior, that salvation is something that is based as much on God’s grace and love, as in our human effort at “working for our salvation with fear and trembling,” in the famous words of St. Paul. The scholastics, basing themselves on St. Augustine, put this matter succinctly in their dictum: “Gratia supponit naturam.”

Grace builds on nature. Grace does not deny, nor destroy nature, but presupposes it. Grace can only work when one opens oneself to the workings of grace. Put in other words, God cannot force Himself in on anyone of us. He respects our freedom, and God, thus, meets us halfway. Ignorance, for example, is something that God’s grace cannot banish, for as long we don’t make efforts at resolving our ignorance. John reminds us: “he came into his own, but his own received him not.” This is a testament to human freedom that can even reject God.

I can think of no other analogy to represent these ideas than the novel and very popular musical Phantom of the Opera (now made into a motion picture). The feared “Phantom” of the opera represents one who literally and figuratively lived in the darkness, down in the bowels of the “opera populaire.” From such darkness, he terrorized the crew, cast, and management of the opera house. From such a situation of darkness, he used his brilliance and calculating intelligence to manipulate others, and cower them into doing his every wish. It was from the dark shadows of his evil machinations that he devised a grand plan to subjugate the young and beautiful Christine Daae, and take her into the clutches of his selfish desires.

But for all his evil plans, the phantom of the opera was touched by love. In the nadir of his shadowy plans and desires, the sincere love and chaste kiss from the lady he loved and wanted to possess brought light to a heart wallowing in the darkness of selfishness and sin, and transformed it into the light of genuine love that was ready to give up whom he loved best. Touched by that love, he was transfixed and transported to the apex of benevolent, self-denying, and self-giving love that led him to do the greatest sacrifice a man in love could ever do – give up the very object of his love for no other reason than love itself. That love is noble and great enough as to enable him to liberate both himself and his beloved. In a most moving scene, where the phantom finally decides to let Christine go, along with the other man who also loved her, few people can fail to notice the full import and meaning of his supreme sacrifice in love’s name, as he plaintively cries one last time, “Christine, I love you!”

The ashes on Ash Wednesday, we have always been told, have to do with penance, prayer, fasting, abstinence, self-denial, and everything associated with the negative. Whilst all this is true, they do not represent the totality of the truth. The ashes have more to do with the reason behind all the negative, the real foundation of the self-denial and the fasting. They have to do essentially with the fact that we have been touched by God’s great love, and marked as God’s own on account of that love. God’s love has swept us away from the nadir of our sinfulness, to the apex of his wondrous, generous, forgiving love. As St. Paul reminds us: “For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” (2nd reading).

Ash Wednesday reminds us that our Christian life is nothing else but an ongoing journey from darkness into light. We all have our own versions of the shadowy bowels of the opera house, our own situations of darkness, our own predominant areas of sinfulness that still need liberation and salvation. Psychologically and spiritually, we all have our own dark corners of the heart. There is always something in us that needs healing; there is always something is us that needs salvation. We all need light, at any given time in our lives.

Ash Wednesday and the whole season of Lent is a protracted reminder of our need for the light that gives sight, the light that sweeps us off our feet of vengefulness, selfishness, and possessiveness. St. Paul tells us as much: “Now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the time of salvation.” Lead us, Father, to the light of love that bestows sight to the light of sinful eyes.”