“Ooh, be careful, you have a smudge; let me wipe it off.” This happens a lot on Ash Wednesday. When the blessed ashes are applied with care, one can see clearly the image of the Cross. When the blessed ashes are applied hastily, they do appear as just a smudge of dirt. And when we go about the day’s routine sometimes we forget that they’re there and absentmindedly wipe at the forehead and make a cross a smudge, or a smudge nothing more than a faint, grayish shadow.
In a way, Ash Wednesday is just like Lent: if we go through it hastily or forget what it is all about, then not only are the blessed ashes just a blur or a shadow, but our soul’s chance at real healthy growth gets forgotten and lost. We go through the motions of giving up this or that “for Lent”, but we don’t see the lasting benefit of sacrifice. We think we’ll lose some weight if we fast, but we don’t see the advantage of living a healthy lifestyle – either physically healthy or spiritually healthy! The graces of Lent begin to blur; the conversion of the heart toward holiness fades to a grayish shadow. We blend back into the crowd. We may be a Christian, but we’re no different.
Come on, disciples! Isn’t it time to march? Wear the cross of blessed ashes as a badge of courage. Get in line and march for a new day, a new life, a new display of what faith can accomplish! Strike up the band and march to the cadence of three strong and clear drumbeats: prayer, fasting, and caring for the poor.
Take up the exercise of prayer again. Get up! Get to Mass! And don’t just let it happen – pray your brains out – that means letting God know you’re there by you doing some talking and also letting God get a word in edge-wise by being docile for a while in God’s presence! Or take up the Rosary again and get back into the restful prayer of Our Blessed Mother. Take a quiet time with her and see how you feel once you get used to it.
Take up the exercise of fasting again. Stay away from the things that make you drowsy, or slow, or uncomfortable and grouchy. That’s all part of it, you know. If “we are what we eat” then by eating (or drinking) a little less of the things that cause problems, maybe you’ll find a little more to be happy about.
Take up care for the poor again. “Pennies make dollars” and so even little offerings or opportunities to help can make a big difference when the whole project comes together.
These spiritual exercises are meant to get us back into shape for the long march. The cross of Blessed Ashes on Ash Wednesday reminds us that we are dust and to dust we shall return, but our march doesn’t end with death. We’re to keep on going and trade the Cross of Ashes for the Cross of Victory, the Cross of Christ that won for Him and for us the promise of immortal glory. He is seated at the right hand of God, you know…and He will take away the Cross of Ashes and anoint us with the glistening Cross of Victory. This glorious Cross will never be misunderstood for a smudge nor will it ever be carelessly wiped away. And He wants us all to be able to wear it.
So make this Lent count! And if anyone says, “Hey, you’ve got a smudge!” you say, “That’s not a smudge – that’s my promise! Why not accept the Cross of Our Lord and keep such a promise with me?”
Diocese of Manchester
The Catholic Church in New Hampshire
153 Ash Street, Box 310
Manchester, NH 03105-0310
Fax: (603) 669-0377
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