Come One, Come All
Ash Wednesday. Most Rev Malcolm McMahon OP, Archbishop of Liverpool, finds that all human beings feel the need for repentance.
There are two days in the year when I rarely preach. These are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. On these days I let the liturgy speak for itself and allow the signs of the ashes or the cross to speak for themselves. Receiving ashes or venerating the cross are two moments in the liturgy of the church which are truly open to everyone.
To receive ashes, you don’t have to be a Catholic or even baptised, you don’t have to be in a regular marriage or relationship, you don’t have to ask anyone for permission to take part – the door is open, and you come in just as you are dressed in your faults and flaws. Ash Wednesday is a day when I can truly say, ‘Welcome’ to anyone who cares to attend, and there are no ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’.
I’m puzzled why people who are not baptised and who only have a very bare knowledge of Jesus would come for ashes. Custom must have a lot to do with it but sometimes it is simply they come with their friends. This was common when I was a student myself many years ago and later when I was a student chaplain and even now when I hang around after Ash Wednesday Mass to greet people someone will say ask me if it was all right for them to have received the ashes even though they don’t belong to a church. It seems that there is something deep within every person that seeks wholeness but how do you express this urge or desire except through symbols. Living with and through symbols is a common human characteristic even if the origins of those symbols are not always clear or connected with belief and ritual. Ashes fall into that category for many people.
A truth that applies to every person who has ever been born is that they will meet death. ‘Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return’ (Gen, 3:19). That admonition from God when Adam and Eve were expelled from paradise is a fact of life for all people whether they believe in God or not. But Pope Francis suggests more than this bleak outlook which may frighten us into sorting out lives. In his encyclical Fratelli Tutti he invites people to ‘dream […] as a single human family, as fellow travellers sharing the same flesh, as children of the same earth which is our common home, each of us bringing the richness of his or her beliefs and convictions, each of us with his or her own voice, brothers and sisters all’ (FT, 8). The Pope refers to aspects of our common humanity which makes us all sisters and brothers sharing not only our perishable flesh, dust and ashes as Job puts it (Job 30:19), but also our dreams and hopes for a better future. Ashes for the Christian are a sign that expresses the hope of that future – and the first step is to change ourselves so that we are looking towards that future. Non-believers and people of other faiths also share that desire to change, make amends, and improve oneself. They also realise that although this may be a personal decision and action at first, it always involves others and the ash on their forehead is clear sign to others that things must change. It is a declaration that we must work together to change the way we use our planet before it is reduced by global warming to ashes! My ecumenical partners in Liverpool offer ‘Ashes to Go’ on the streets of our city every Ash Wednesday, and the uptake from passers-by is phenomenal.
As the powerful sign of ashes speak to the heart so do the words of Jesus who exhorts us to make small steps towards changing our way of life, and to do this without drawing attention to ourselves. As the mark of ashes wear off our foreheads or we have combed out the ashes sprinkled over us, the change continues quietly. The traditional Lenten practices of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting change us from within. We realise how small and vulnerable we are when we pray before God our creator and Father. Pondering on the greatness of God who is calling us to him can be hard to take in. Fasting can help us feel our vulnerability and bodily weakness when the common attitude is to be assertive and forceful. Sharing our goods with those who have less brings us closer to the poor and we gain a glimpse of their suffering and vulnerability. And so, the mercy of God comes into our hearts as we turn to him. The Lenten practices bring into sharp focus what it means to be a follower of Jesus, not through intellect or even a strong faith but through deed and action as we strip ourselves of the comforts and assurances which we have built for our self-protection but in fact have limited our growth towards God and turned us in on ourselves. Now is the time for us to do something about that; let Ash Wednesday be a new beginning as we break down our defences and allow the mercy of God to change our lives.
Image: detail from ‘Ash to Ash’ by Greg Williams