While visiting my old parish briefly last week, I was informed that cancer—which she had valiantly defeated a few years ago—had returned in a wonderful 30-something young mother. But that ol’ cancer: no respecter of age or person, power or position is it. Prince or pauper, pope or private … life-threatening misfortune can hit any of us at any time, whether it be by sickness, accident or some other calamity. This only highlights one of Jesus’ most obvious, and yet most poignant, statements: “Watch, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
Now this Wednesday Catholics and other Christians observe Ash Wednesday (yes, falling, unfortunately this year, on Valentine’s Day), beginning the Lenten season, which lasts until the celebration of Easter and Jesus’ Resurrection. For those who do not know, Lent is a time of self-reflection, leading (hopefully) to self-improvement by better observance of the two great commandments outlined by Jesus: Love of God first and foremost, and love of neighbor as oneself.
The 40 days of Lent are meant to reflect and imitate Jesus’ own 40-day sojourn in the desert and His defeat of temptations prior to the beginning of His public mission of evangelization (see the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 4). We Christians thus seek to gain renewed strength in this Lenten time by remembering and imitating Jesus’ own self-denial and centering ourselves toward the good, and to focus upon fulfilling those two commandments ever more perfectly—that which is truly important and essential.
In the Catholic Ash Wednesday Mass are distributed ashes on each person’s forehead; you may see this on some in your workplace, shops, etc. What do the ashes signify? They have an at-least twofold meaning. First of all, they serve as a visual reminder and remembrance that our earthly life is very temporary … that our bodies return to the earth from which they came, recalling the Genesis story of Adam created from the dust. Secondly, and relatedly, the ashes also signify sorrow for any wrongs that he has committed against God and his fellow Man, and the accompanying desire to amend his life toward the better—again, seeking better observance of the two great commandments.
The older of the formulae the minister may use while applying the ashes is “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” quoting Genesis 3:19, and also recalling: “…the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” (Ecclesiastes 12:7) The more modern formula, however, speaks to the larger purpose of the rite: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel”… and so there again are those two great universal commandments, upon which Jesus assures us “…depend all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:40)—all of the essence of the Word of God to us. For Jesus reminds us in another place: “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:17-18)
And so, the focus of Ash Wednesday and Lent is ultimately upon self-improvement and growth in self-mastery against the temptations against the good, which assault all of us daily, hourly … even “minute-ly” at times—Christian or not. But even if one is not Christian, the spring season in which Lent occurs can be focused upon as a time of renewal of virtue in imitation of the beauty of new life that spring ushers in.
“Watch, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Yes, it’s one of the most obvious of Jesus’ statements, and yet one of the most neglected—even by Christians. But the wise man/woman will ever have this thought in mind, knowing the inevitably of our passing.
At the end of the movie “The Thirteenth Warrior” (not one for the kiddies, by the way), the (illiterate) dying hero states: “I die a pauper. I have nothing but these hands. But a man might be thought to be rich if someone were to draw [write] the story of his deeds, that they might be remembered.”
Well, in each action of our lives we “draw” our own story by which we will be remembered. We Christians, of course, believe that all persons’ remembrance—good or bad—is “written” in Heaven, to be recalled our final life’s evaluation, and that we will judged accordingly. Is it not simply wisdom, then, to always seek the good at all times? Even the atheist longs to be remembered well and with fondness.
How to turn our lives to the good? By determination in self-discipline and self-mastery, without which there can be no virtue, no pursuit of good. And an excellent and universal starting point for even non-Christians can be found in the words of St. Paul: “…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law…Let us have no self-conceit, no provoking of one another, no envy of one another.” (Galatians 5:22-26) And, of course, there is no better advice than that of Jesus Himself: “…as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them…But love your enemies, and do good…Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:31-36)
Thoughts and prayers, beloved L, for your healing and consolation.