What is this strange fascination with ashes? By day’s end, in this Church of the Holy Innocents three blocks north of Macy’s in Midtown Manhattan, priests will have imposed ashes on the foreheads of thousands of people: 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 T. S. Eliot in his poetic reflection on the meaning of this day.
In that 1930 poem Ash-Wednesday, written between the two world 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 shuv bespeaks the attitude and action of “conversion” – that change of mind and heart which must-needs always lead 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 one coming forward to receive a token dab of ashes is 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 one away from Him, the jealous God who insists on our 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 those words.
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.”
However, every day is Ash Wednesday for the one 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 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 chanted in 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 adulterous, murderous 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 Savior – 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.
And so, the ceremony of the ashes is a most fitting prelude to the entire holy season upon which we are embarking, a fitting prelude to whatever remains of our life here below.
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