Signed, Sealed, Delivered
An illustrated Catholic Guide to Ashes by Bill Donaghy comically identifies the different shapes and sizes of the dark smudge we receive on our foreheads at the beginning of Lent. Examples include a neatly formed ashen cross as “First in Line,” an amorphous spot as “The Blob,” and an oversized, heavily stroked cross as “Father’s Revenge.”
While ministering in New Orleans, I observed people on Ash Wednesday bearing on their foreheads what may be mistaken for a flattened palmetto bug. However, I wouldn’t attribute this splotch to “Father’s Revenge” but to the aftermath of “Father’s Revelry” on Mardi Gras the day before! (I speak indulgently from experience.)
In 1949, British author Evelyn Waugh had his own observations about New Orleans: “Ash Wednesday: warm rain falling in streets unsightly with the draggled survivals of carnival. The Roosevelt Hotel overflowing with crapulous tourists planning their return journeys.…But across the way the Jesuit Church was teeming with life all day long; a continuous, dense crowd of all colors and conditions moving up to the altar rails and returning with their foreheads signed with ash….All that day, all over that lighthearted city, one encountered the little black smudge on the forehead which sealed us members of a great brotherhood who can both rejoice and recognize the limits of rejoicing” (Life magazine).
Lent is the penitential season to rejoice within limits: “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). We recognize our short lifespans and limitations, but we rejoice assuredly that the dust to which we shall one day return is glorified in Christ without limit! “The cross, with which the ashes are traced upon us, is the sign of Christ’s victory over death….It might be good stoicism to receive a mere reminder of our condemnation to die, but it is not Christianity” (from Ash Wednesday: Spiritual Medicine by Thomas Merton).
Thus, ashes are both a sign of mortality and purification in Christ. Before the charred remnants of last year’s palms take fuzzy form on our foreheads, the holy chrism oil first marked the spot at our baptism! “The person baptized is configured to Christ. Baptism seals the Christian with the indelible spiritual mark…of his belonging to Christ” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1272). Moreover, “The faithful Christian who has ‘kept this seal’ until the end, remaining faithful to the demands of his Baptism, will be able to depart this life ‘marked with the sign of faith’…in expectation of the blessed vision of God…and in the hope of the resurrection” (CCC 1274).
So if the cross is a little disfigured on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday, let its distortion represent a desire to reconfigure ourselves to Christ in Lent. Now’s the time to give alms, do penance, and amend our lives!
Fr. Byron Miller, CSsR