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By Bishop Larry Silva
March 01, 2017
Ash Wednesday - [Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Peace]
There are two ways something can be turned into ashes. One is by fire. I am sure that is the way the palms blessed on Palm Sunday last year were turned into the ashes we will impose upon our foreheads today to mark the beginning of Lent. The other way something can be turned into ashes is by simple neglect over time, a neglect that make things disintegrate, fall apart, lose their cohesion, and simply crumble into dust and ashes. It would be good for us to reflect on both of these ways of remembering that we are dust and to dust we shall return.
We can disintegrate by simple neglect of our spiritual lives; by allowing our spiritual muscles to atrophy, to lose their vibrancy, and to simply break down. I remember going for a physical exam when I was about 30 years old. The doctor told me I was in good health, but he asked me a very pointed question: How long do you expect to live? Taken aback by the question, I stammered a little, and he said, “Though you are in good health now, if you do not start getting some regular exercise, I can tell you that you will not live very long.” That was a wakeup call to me that I needed to change my lifestyle. Anyone who has been laid up for some time knows that when muscles are not used, it becomes more difficult to use them. And so a person must go to physical therapy to relearn what before was so natural. So it is with the spiritual life, and the Church calls us each year to this time of Lent so that we can be more spiritually fit, and our dear Mother Church suggests to us certain penitential practices. We fast, abstain from meat on certain days, engage in special times of prayer, give alms to those in need, and exercise our spiritual muscles so that we do not just disintegrate spiritually and become little more than dust and ashes. This imposition of ashes can be like the doctor’s wake up call to me, reminding us that if we do not repent and open ourselves more deliberately to the grace of God we will soon be nothing but dead ashes.
Then there is the fire that transforms a living thing into ashes. This, too, is something the Church asks us to rekindle during Lent. It is a fire of love. It is especially important that we reflect during this time on Jesus’ sacrificial love for us, a love that burned so arduously that he even accepted death on a cross so that we could live. It is a fire that makes us passionate about serving others, just as Jesus came to serve us. It is a rediscovery of the risen Jesus who is with us always and who sends us out with his love so that we can set the world on fire, burning away all its selfishness and hatred, burying them as dust and ashes, then watching God raise them up as he did at the very beginning and breathe the fire of the Holy Spirit into them. How often we wish that those who do not come to Mass on Sunday would be with us every Sunday? Yet we seldom speak of the Mass as a furnace of love, at which we encounter the risen Christ as surely and as physically as his first disciples encountered him the night he burst forth from the tomb. We come here thinking this is only about being stimulated by uplifting music, by a thoughtful homily, or by friendly people. While those things are all important, we must heed Jesus’ warning of not doing even good things for the wrong reasons. We come here to first admit that we are not gods ourselves, but that we are but dust before the living God, who nevertheless breathes the fire of his love into us and makes us a little less than the angels. It is worship that will keep this fire burning within us. But not just any worship, worship in the risen Christ, who ascended into heaven, but who is the living bread come down from heaven. His love is so arduous that he even invites us to an unbelievable intimacy with him by eating his Body and drinking his Blood in the sacrament of the Eucharist. It is taking the fire of this love within us that will help us burn away all sin, all that looks so wonderful but that is in reality a dead end. It is in burning away this sin that we, who become like dust and ashes relegated to a tomb can rise up with the risen Jesus and set the world on fire with his love.
Of course, Ash Wednesday is only a beginning, opening a time of purification in which we remember who we really are, but dust and ashes. But it leads us to an ending, in which we will gather in the darkness to light a fire, to let that light overcome the darkness, to remember the saving waters in which lifeless dirt was drowned so that we could rise up with the risen Jesus and bear much fruit to the glory of God. We encourage one another on this journey, knowing that there is the most ardent blaze of everlasting love at the end.