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The Power and Poignancy of the Smudge

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"Ash Wednesday is full of joy... The source of all sorrow is the illusion that of ourselves we are anything but dust." ~ Thomas Merton

In his Essay for The Catholic Thing entitled “The Fascination of Ashes,” Father Peter Stravinskas explores this wildly popular day on our Liturgical Calendar known as Ash Wednesday. Specifically he examines those who pursue the receipt of ashes in the shape of Jesus’ instrument of torture and death upon their foreheads, this despite the fact that many of them are quite reluctant to attend Sunday Mass, evangelize, or generally compete well for the faith in their places of work and social circles during the other 364 days of the year.

“Consciously or not,” Father Stravinskas concludes, “I suspect the average person recognizes something primal in the symbol of the ashes, which hints at our own vulnerability and mortality, reminding us that even Americans after a century of science and progress live under a death sentence.” In a nod to the seemingly unending COVID Pandemic, he goes in to point out that “Millionaires and mighty boxers die just as surely as paupers and weaklings.” He explains however that this realization should not cause us to wallow in the macabre for as he puts it, “The Church intends something quite different” as captured by T.S. Elliot in his 1930 poetic reflection Ash Wednesday http://famouspoetsandpoems.com/poets/t__s__eliot/poems/15133

The distribution or sprinkling of ashes is not a new practice. In ancient Greece and Egypt, the sprinkling of ashes on one’s head was a sign of mourning. We see this in the Old Testament as well. In the early Church, the priest sprinkled ashes on the heads of those performing acts of public penance. In 1091, Pope Urban III endorsed ashes as a Lenten practice, and recommended the priests sprinkle them on the heads of their parishioners. Ash has been smudged on the awaiting foreheads of the faithful ~ and lukewarm ~ ever since.

In the closing words of today’s Gospel (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18), Jesus would appear to be contradicting the very act of adorning our foreheads with the ashen soot of last year’s Palm Sunday palm fronds. “But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will relay you.” These are Jesus’ words to the disciples in his midst, Gospel words proclaimed every year during Ash Wednesday Mass. What gives?

As always, context matters. For in the chapter right before this one (Matthew 5:13-14), Jesus says "You are the salt of the earth...You are the light of the world. And a city on a hilltop cannot be hidden." If one were to pursue virtue falsely or disingenuously, purely to receive praise from others, they will have “already received their reward" as Jesus explains. Ashes however are in many ways an outward sign of humility and courage. They state in a very visible way "I'm a sinner, and I've come to repent." They proclaim that their recipient has heeded the words of the Prophet Joel In today's 1st Reading (Joel 2:12-18): "Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and the mourning.”

The Lenten Season affords us the opportunity to grow in our virtue in such a way that it runs so profoundly deep we don’t even realize we’re being virtuous. We come to perform righteous deeds not so that will be noticed by others but because there is simply no other way to do things.

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Ultimately there is something innate to the human soul that knows every so often, one must make a journey of descent, be smudged, lose one’s luster, and wait while the ashes do their work. This Lent, let the ashes do their work. Allow them to awaken you to a renewed sense of urgency. To add virtue while eliminating vice. To transform and unburden you from that which cripples and enslaves.

“In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.” I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.” ~ 2 Corinthians 6:2

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