“I confess to Almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters…” is what we pray at Mass and is basically what we celebrate on Ash Wednesday as those black bars are drawn on our skull. “Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return” echo in the ears because they sound so foreign in our instant gratification culture. My mind says “Me, dust? Come on.” But no matter how hard I try, how many degrees I get, how many Corvettes sit in my garage, how much I have in stock options, or what my shirt or golf club labels say I can take nothing, notta, zero, zilch when my expiration date comes up. Because I forget all to easily, a person presses his thumb in black powder and etches a cross to remind me of where I came from and where I must go.
Thinking about this time of the liturgical year encouraged me to dig a little deeper on ashes. We find this term used in Scripture and many times the word is associated with repenting and mourning for one’s sins, “I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes.” To acknowledge one’s sinfulness is a very humbling action; confessing faults is a recognition of imperfection. Like many virtues, our culture seems to have forgotten what humility really is. Although many have heard of humility, it is often misunderstood.
Basically, humility is the acknowledgment that a person has a “modest estimate of his own worth, and submits himself to others.” A prideful person, the opposite of humility, lives on a make believe island of himself. A desponded person, also the opposite of humility, carries a false sense of rejection and is lost in selfishness and “Oh, poor me.” Properly, the humble person recognizes his own worth and this recognition opens himself up for others.
The word “humility” comes from the Latin word humus which means “earth, ground, soil.” To receive the ashes is to say that we recognize our own limitations and sins before the Almighty and All-Loving God. It is a reminder that we did not create our own self and that the material that makes up that black cross on my forehead is what I have to look forward to, my own finale. It is a jolt of reality that one day we will die and when we do, this change of address comes with a judgment. Those words are to wake us up to the fact that as special and valuable as we are for being children of God, this life is finite.
Without having to re-invent the wheel, St. Benedict has already offered a twelve step program on humility.
Here they are as from The Rule of St. Benedict Chapter 7: On Humility:
This list is taken from different parts of Holy Writ. Just going quickly over them shows how counter they can be with our contemporary culture. It is also easy to see how these steps lead a person to be available for another person. Notice, I didn’t say the steps were easy. Though this is a short form, some may need further explanation like “Do not laugh.” The full length unabridged form is: “The tenth degree of humility is, when a monk is not easily moved and quick for laughter, for it is written: “The fool exalteth his voice in laughter” (Sir 21:23).” This has something to do with raising your voice when laughing and foolishness.
Other words we may hear today are, “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” These are also not some nice words that make you feel warm and cozy inside. Rather they are a call for a radical change, a conversion. They are the words that every saint has spoken in word or deed. It is an invitation to step outside mediocrity and into the Divine life. The Divine life is seldom portrayed as stagnant. In fact, Dante envisioned the center of Hell as stagnant and cold with Satan half encased in ice. Heaven was to be in union with the Unmoved Mover or as St. John of the Cross says “O living Flame of Love…”. We are told to turn away from sin not because the Church doesn’t want us to have fun. Rather, She wants to save us from death by blandness. Something I really like about this phrase is the directness and simplicity. They remind me of Christ’s words after He forgave people in the Gospels, “Go and sin no more.”
With all the spirital and/or liturgical richness Lent offers, what are your favorites? Is it the ashes? How about the Stations of the Cross? Palm Sunday?