In the Midst of Life
Ash Wednesday. fr Lawrence Lew helps us to see how Lent is the season in which we learn to die to sin.
The season of Lent beginning with Ash Wednesday is something like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tale (later made into a movie) of Benjamin Button in which the protagonist presents the curious case of ‘ageing backwards’; he begins his life an old man and ends up a baby. The Liturgy’s movement, leading us from Ash Wednesday through Lent and into Eastertide is something like this too. For today we begin with a burial. Just as funerals are performed in public, so we will (in seeming contradiction to the Gospel) wear ashes on our forehead very publicly, to be seen by all. In this manner we recall the words of a responsory used in Dominican Compline during Lent: “In the midst of life we are in death…” Hence the words from Genesis 3:19, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return”, are said during the imposition of ashes; they are reminiscent of the words found in the Anglican funeral rites: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust”.
But if we begin with a funeral and ‘age backwards’, then the days of Lent are our days of dying. For during Lent our penitential exercises and transformative good acts have a deadly seriousness. Not for us, if we’re to take Lent seriously, the routine of giving up chocolate or the odd drink. Rather, our penances should train us to shun vice and to increase in virtue; they should deal a mortal blow to our sinful habits and enable us to die to ourselves and our self-centred sinful desires. Hence the ashes were traced in the form of a cross for Lent is the time of dying with Christ. As St Paul said: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live” (Gal 2:20).
Dying, especially in our part of the world today, is largely hidden and unseen. For there is something very intimate and sacred about dying as one stands on the threshold between this life and the next, and as one prepares to come before one’s Lover and Creator God. But our Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward us. So it is that during Lent all our fasts and acts of sacrificial giving and our prayers should be offered in secret, just between God and me – not discussed publicly or talked about in common rooms but undergone hidden and unseen, without inconveniencing others or keeping us from our duties. For in this way we die with Christ who was tempted alone in the desert; who offered his will freely to the Father at Gethsemane; and who died bereft of friends outside the city walls on Calvary. So, too, our Lenten dying through acts of sacrificial penance is largely hidden and unseen; just between God and us, but they serve to unite us in love to our Saviour.
Then, St Paul says, “if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him” (Rom 6:8). Thus we ‘age backwards’, moving through the dying stage that is Lent into living with Christ. So, not living our old sinful lives, or even becoming willful independent adults. Rather, Easter means becoming fully alive in the Risen Christ, raised to new life by the grace and power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, like Benjamin Button, we shall ‘age backwards’ until we become babies, utterly dependent on God’s sanctifying grace and feeding on the milk of divine truth. Hence the Entrance Antiphon for the Second Sunday of Easter says: “Like newborn infants, you must long for the pure, spiritual milk, that in [Christ] you may grow to salvation” (1 Pt 2:2).
So, let us prepare today for our burial even as in times past the Church would bury the ‘Alleluia’ today, and then let us die to ourselves and to our sins so that at Eastertide we may be reborn as God’s little babies, crying: Alleluia!
Readings: Joel 2:12-18|2 Cor 5:20–6:2|Matt 6:1-6,16-18
The image above shows the preparation of ashes from the previous year’s blessed palms.