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Essay
March 01, 2017
The Judaeo-Christian Tradition is not cyclical but linear. The ashes are intended to break the cycle of sin and death, setting us on a straight course toward infinity.
A woman receives ashes from a priest during Ash Wednesday Mass Feb. 10, 2016, at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington. (CNS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann, Catholic Standard)

What is this strange fascination with ashes? Today in Grand Central Station, if it was a typical Ash Wednesday, the priests of St. Agnes Church imposed ashes on the foreheads of over 20,000 people, which “congregation” was comprised of fervent Catholics, lukewarm Catholics, apostate Catholics and non-Catholics! What power does that smudge of ash exert? Better yet, why?

Whether consciously or not, I suspect the average person recognizes something incredibly primal in the symbol of the ashes as their “wispiness” hints at our own vulnerability and mortality, reminding us that even Americans after a century of science and progress live under a death sentence. Millionaires and mighty boxers die just as surely as paupers and weaklings. But this realization should not give us cause to wallow in the macabre; the Church intends something quite different, something caught by none other than T. S. Eliot in his poem devoted to a reflection on the meaning of this day.

In that 1930 work, written between the two wars, Eliot begins with the line: “Because I do not hope to turn again...” What does he have in mind? The notion of “turning” is an extremely biblical concept. The Hebrew word shuv bespeaks the attitude and action of “conversion” – that change of mind and heart which leads always to a change in action. The English poet knew that if this day has any significance beyond the superstitious or cultural, it has to elicit a change in behavior. St. Luke tells us that after Peter had denied his Lord, he “turned” and saw that sacred and agony-riddled Face. That turning toward the face of Christ launched Peter on the life-long journey of remaining “turned” toward the Master and away from the Evil One.

Today you will once again come forward to receive a token dab of ashes, but you are not permitted thereby to make but a token commitment to “return”. The Lord of the ashes demands a hearty and heart-filled decision to move away from any thing or any person which might lead you away from Him, the jealous God Who insists on your undivided love not because He needs it but because we need it, precisely in order to be fulfilled and happy, in the most profound sense of the word.

Not by accident, then, does T. S. Eliot take as his special model of life-long penitence the cloistered nun; for him, she is likewise a sign of hope. Contemplatives, you see, do intensively and in hiddenness what the rest of us must be about in the hum-drum existence of our daily lives in the world. They do not do the job for us; they merely point the way, albeit in very dramatic fashion. The poet explains: “... where will the word resound? Not here, there is not enough silence . ... The right time and the right place are not here. No place of grace for those who avoid the face, No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice.”

But every day is Ash Wednesday for what Eliot calls “the veiled Sister,” and the prayer of all such holy women is that our once-a-year observance of the occasion through silence and introspection, through listening to the Voice and looking to the Face, will put us in good stead for the remaining 364 days, but most especially for the final day when the King and Judge appears either to call us to Himself personally or to usher in the end-times – whichever comes first.

Interestingly and wisely, Eliot takes some very common lines of Christian prayer and intersperses them within his poem, as much as to say that these words we speak so often and perhaps so nonchalantly truly need to form the warp and woof of our spiritual pilgrimage. “Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death,” from the “Hail Mary.” “Lord, I am not worthy, but speak the word only,” spoken so hastily before Holy Communion. “And after this our exile,” from the Church’s night prayer to the Virgin. “O my people, what have I done unto thee?” comes the plaintive voice of the God of the Hebrews from the Good Friday Reproaches. “Bless me, Father,” words used perhaps not often enough to move us toward the great sacrament of healing and forgiveness. “Suffer me not to be separated,” the humble prayer of the priest before his reception of the Body and Blood of the Savior. “And let my prayer come unto Thee,” the Psalmist’s plead which must always be our own.

Several times Eliot begs us to “redeem the time,” reminiscent of the ancient Roman “carpe diem” [seize the opportunity], or better yet, of the ancient prophets. Indeed, in striking manner, Holy Mother Church today dons the prophetic mantle of old Joel who, with urgency, in short, clipped and imperative sentences calls for a proper attention to the message of reform and renewal. Her hymn of preference for this day is the haunting rendition of Joel’s prayer: “Parce, Domine, parce populo tuo!” [“Spare, O Lord, spare your people!”]. St. Paul also stands in that prophetic tradition as he reminds us that “now is the acceptable time! Now is the day of salvation!”

With such exhortations ringing in our ears, we utter the words of Psalm 51 with deep conviction: “Miserere mei, Domine, miserere mei.” [“Have mercy on me, O Lord, have mercy on me.”]. It is the murderous, adulterous but repentant David who speaks, and we ask that his voice become ours. For he was a man whose sinfulness was only exceeded by his honesty and sorrow. May that grace be given to each of us.

The message of the ashes, then, is quite simple. The Judaeo-Christian Tradition – the biblical way of life, if you will – is not cyclical but linear. The ashes are intended to break the cycle of sin and death, setting us on a straight course toward infinity. These forty days of prayer, fasting and almsgiving – spent in union with our Divine Master – hold out to us the firm promise and the sure confidence of a death which is but the gateway to an eternity of unending, unimaginable bliss. As the Church’s liturgy teaches: “Where He has gone, we hope to follow.”

It might be well to end this meditation with a Litany of Penance, which comes to us from the pen of another great Englishman, John Henry Newman. It is a fitting prelude to the imposition of the ashes, a fitting prelude to the entire holy season upon which we are embarking, a fitting prelude to whatever remains of our life here below.  

Lord have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Christ, hear us.
Christ, graciously hear us.

God the Father of Heaven,
Have mercy on us.

God the Son, Redeemer of the world,
Have mercy on us.

God the Holy Ghost,
Have mercy on us.

Holy Trinity, one God,
Have mercy on us.

Incarnate Lord,
Have mercy on us.

Lover of souls,
Have mercy on us.
Saviour of sinners,
Have mercy on us.

Who didst come to seek those that were lost,
Have mercy on us.

Who didst fast for them forty days and nights,
Have mercy on us.

By Thy tenderness towards Adam when he fell,
Have mercy on us.

By Thy faithfulness to Noe in the ark,
Have mercy on us.

By Thy remembrance of Lot in the midst of sinners,
Have mercy on us.

By Thy mercy on the Israelites in the desert,
Have mercy on us.

By Thy forgiveness of David after his confession,
Have mercy on us.

By Thy patience with wicked Achab on his humiliation,
Have mercy on us.

By Thy restoration of the penitent Manasses,
Have mercy on us.

By Thy long suffering towards the Ninevites, when they went in sackcloth and ashes.
Have mercy on us.

By Thy blessing on the Maccabees, who fasted before the battle,
Have mercy on us.

By Thy choice of John to go before Thee as the preacher of penance,
Have mercy on us.

By Thy testimony to the Publican, who hung his head and smote his breast,
Have mercy on us.

By Thy welcome given to the returning Prodigal,
Have mercy on us.By Thy gentleness with the woman of Samaria,
Have mercy on us.

By Thy condescension towards Zacchaeus, persuading him to restitution,
Have mercy on us.

By Thy pity upon the woman taken in adultery,
Have mercy on us.

By Thy love of Magdalen, who loved much,
Have mercy on us.

By Thy converting look, at which Peter wept,
Have mercy on us.

By Thy gracious words to the thief upon the cross,
Have mercy on us.

We sinners, beseech Thee, hear us.

That we may judge ourselves, and so escape Thy judgment,
We beseech Thee, hear us.

That we may bring forth worthy fruits of penance,
We beseech Thee, hear us.

That sin may not reign in our mortal bodies,
We beseech Thee, hear us.

That we may work out our salvation with fear and trembling,
We beseech Thee, hear us.

Son of God, We beseech Thee,
hear us.

Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world,
Spare us, O Lord.

Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world,
Graciously hear us, O Lord.

Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world,
Have mercy on us.

Christ, hear us.
Christ, graciously hear us.

O Lord, hear our prayer.
And let our cry come unto Thee.

Let us pray.

Grant, we beseech Thee, O Lord,
to Thy faithful, pardon and peace,
that they may be cleansed from all their offences,
and also serve Thee with a quiet mind,
through Christ our Lord.

Amen.

 
About the Author
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Rev. Peter M.J. Stravinskas 

Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas is the editor of the The Catholic Response, and the author of over 500 articles for numerous Catholic publications, as well as several books, including The Catholic Church and the Bible and Understanding the Sacraments.
 

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