Every year on Ash Wednesday, the pews are FILLED with people! It is not a holy day of obligation. It is during the middle of a week day. And it is not only Catholics I see coming but Christians of all faith backgrounds. Why is this? As I sat in prayer during yesterday’s Ash Wednesday Liturgy while rows and rows of people went up to receive their ashes, I began to reflect on this.
What is it about the ashes that unites us? I think the answer lies in the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” These are the words we may hear when the ashes are placed onto our foreheads. The ashes and these words remind us of our humanity and that one day we will all die. And as we reflect on our humanity, we cannot but help to contemplate on three things:
(1) Deep in every soul, whether one acknowledges its existence or not, is the realization that there is something supremely greater than anything experienced in this earthly life. And all of material creation demonstrates that this Supreme Being is our Creator. This Supreme Being – God – did not need anything, yet we are all here. The ashes remind us of the question that remains: why did God create anything at all?
(2) And every human being has a place deep in their heart where there is an intense longing for unending happiness. We all experience moments of happiness and we all find earthly things or relationships that bring us joy, but all of us also encounter times of sorrow, pain and suffering. Our longing for unending happiness cannot find any earthly fulfillment. The ashes remind us of the question that remains: what is it that can satisfy this desire for unending happiness?
(3) And no human person can deny that all of us will one day die. Death is an experience we cannot escape. It is inevitable. Yet there is a sense felt by many people that death is not actually the end. Beyond the appearance death gives us of being the final experience, something in our souls tells us, “No, death does not have the final word.” We cannot prove it scientifically but most people are convinced nonetheless. Our bodies may corrupt but there is something more. The ashes remind us of the question that remains: what happens after this life?
With these three interior, universal, human questions, we will not find the answers in science books or research journals or in any experiment. Our answers to these three questions can only be found in the supernatural. And God Himself has spoken to us to reveal the answers.
(1) God created everything out of nothing – not because of necessity but purely out of love. And it is because of this same love that God continues to hold all things in existence. God’s love for us is unconditional, unfailing, unending, infinite. Regardless if we love Him in return, He will always love us.
(2) The only source of absolute fulfillment for the happiness all humanity desires is God Himself. When God created humanity, He put the desires for goodness, beauty, truth and happiness deep within our hearts knowing that if we sincerely sought these things, it would always lead us to Him. And those who find God and are perfectly united to Him experience immeasurable happiness that our earthly minds cannot even fathom.
(3) This life is temporary. There is life after death – eternal life. And there are two ultimate destinies for human beings – either eternal life in heaven or eternal life in hell. In heaven people are perfectly united to God for eternity, filled with complete joy, immeasurable happiness and infinite love. Hell is the complete opposite situation. And God tells us that heaven is offered to all but hell is chosen by many.
The ashes remind us of our humanity and the stark reality that one day we will die. On Ash Wednesday, many of us who come to Mass look at the ashes in the bowls and on our foreheads and we are struck, even if but for a moment in some people, that one day our bodies will lie in the ground after they have decayed and will be like these ashes. Reality hits us that this life is short and temporary. These deep questions of our hearts call out to us as the ashes mark our foreheads (Why am I here? How can I be happy? Is death really the end?).
And then God Himself calls out to us, “I created you out of love and hold you in existence at every moment because of My love. It is only in Me that you will find the true happiness you are always seeking. I want to give this to you. Do you want to receive this happiness? If so, be aware, this earthly life will end at any minute, as it is temporary. And even though short, your earthly life is far from insignificant. I love you and ask you to love Me in return. So you must make a choice. You can choose to love Me or reject Me. You have only until the end of your earthly life to decide. I will give you all of the strength and power you need through My grace but you must be open to receiving this grace and cooperate with it. And I will warn you, the road taken of loving Me is narrow and difficult but the end is heaven. Few take this path. The road leading away from Me is wide and easy but the end is hell. Unfortunately, many people do choose to take this latter path. But now I ask you, which path do you choose?”
God is truly calling out to each one of us. As we reflect back on Ash Wednesday and begin our Lenten journey, let us truly ponder God’s question to us: which path do I choose? And we must also acknowledge that our “choice” is not only intellectual and made at one moment in time. Our choice must be made daily, should be transformative and must be evident in every aspect of our lives.
“Lent stimulates us to let the Word of God penetrate our life and in this way to know the fundamental truth: who we are, where we come from, where we must go, what path we must take in life…” – Pope Benedict XVI