I’m never quite ready for Ash Wednesday. It’s not like it sneaks up on me—it’s right there on the calendar, and in my work here at Loyola Press I am constantly thinking ahead in order to write material for such major days as Ash Wednesday. But I am rarely personally ready for this day that plunges us into a long season of reflection and preparation. The Lenten weeks lead up to the most significant holy day on the Christian calendar: Easter. How do you prepare for that? How do you live in it?
Part of the problem is that I want to follow the logic and meaning of Lent with my emotions. It’s not enough to say, “I came from dust and will return to dust”—which is one of the messages conveyed by the use of ashes. It’s not even enough to walk around all day with an ash-y cross on my forehead. I want to be all there: thoughts, beliefs, feelings, body, and actions. And while I can direct my thoughts a certain way, make signs upon my body, review my beliefs, and determine to do specific acts during Lent, my emotions just do what they feel like doing, which is, I suppose, the nature of emotions.
Maybe I believe that I must feel something in order for my thoughts and beliefs about it to be authentic. But, really, is that true? Emotions are responses to all sorts of things, including what I ate two hours ago or how much sleep I didn’t get. Emotions are the fluid, ongoing reaction to any number of factors at any moment.
And, do we really want to feel fully what we know or believe, all the time? Could I manage pure joy or sorrow on a continuous basis? Or would it cause me to implode? If I truly connected to the reality of how close I am to death every moment of my life, might that disrupt the energy I need to expend toward living in the present moment? If I experienced the full sorrow of Jesus when he was betrayed, when he looked down at the stricken countenance of his mother during his crucifixion, when he perceived the burden of humanity’s greatest grief and evil in that focused point of time—would I even be able to process that?
Sometimes it seems that our “aha!” experiences, our illuminations, happen at a point when, just for a moment or two, the whole self gathers around the center that is reality. For a bare second or two, I feel the grief of God; for a fleeting instance, I experience the mercy of God. That’s all it takes to unravel me completely; that’s all it takes to break me open and thus begin the healing.
So, if you’re like me, in that you want to experience fully Ash Wednesday or any other important day or event, then I suggest you do what is in your power to do. Go to Mass, or attend a simple service where ashes are smeared onto your forehead, or play music that helps you ponder the meaning of it all, or pray with the Psalms, or read and meditate upon a Gospel story, or take a long walk alone, or give assistance at a food pantry or homeless shelter. Do whatever is in your heart to do. Invite the Holy to gather all your faculties to the point that’s right for you, right now. The final outcome is never up to us anyway.
Blessed Ash Wednesday to you.
For those of you who are interested, here’s a link to “An Ash Wednesday Reflection in 7 Stanzas,” posted last year. I wrote this reflection to use in our church services one year.