From the perspective of those outside of the Catholic and Orthodox Christian traditions, Ash Wednesday appears odd. On one occasion, I can recall – on the campus of a Catholic college, no less – overhearing undergraduates speculate that ashes on the foreheads of students must be the product of “pledge week” for fraternities and sororities. (Yikes!) Frequently, in the classroom, I would encounter the belief that Christians should always be aware of their need for redemption, and that the practice of distributing ashes one day a year served to undercut what should be a constant mindfulness. In other words, it makes what should be a daily awareness into an annual activity. While I would agree that the disciple of Christ should always be mindful of his/her need for redemption, and Christ’s abundant love for us in bringing it about, the human reality is that we are in need of constant reminding. We forget. And we not only forget because we have poor memories, we forget because we have fallen memories.
If we take the time to reflect upon memory, we should be struck by its power. After all, it is a sort of conjuring. My Nonna (of blessed memory) passed away some years ago, and yet I can recall her image, the sound of her voice, and how the soft skin of her wrinkled hand felt against mine. Every now and again, I will even associate a particular scent with that of her home. It’s difficult to describe but, when prompted by a similar smell, I’ll say to myself: “That smells like Nonna’s house.” The substantial existence of these things has long since gone, but in my memory I experience them again. What a truly marvelous gift we human beings have been given!
Lent is that time of the liturgical year when we especially recall the gospel proclamation of Christ himself: “‘The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel’” (Mk 1:14-15; see Mt 4:17). During today’s Mass, a portion of this passage is one of two that one might hear when receiving ashes; the other being: “Remember that ‘you are dust and to dust you shall return’” (Gen 3:19). It is a somewhat traditional English translation to render the word “repent” in this verse from the original word “metanoeite,” but the Greek word has a much richer meaning. It is a combination of the words “mind” [nous] and “beyond” [meta], and one could interpret this word rather physically as meaning “take your head and turn it 180 degrees.” In one sense, a better English word than “repent” is “conversion.” What we remember today is that Christ calls us to himself, to live in communion with him, and that this communion requires being attuned to him in heart, soul, and mind (cf. Lk 10:27; Dt 6:5). In short, today Christ calls us to “return to [him] with [our] whole heart” (Jl 1:12).
For the disciple of Christ, this turning of heart and mind should be a daily occurrence, an ever present mindfulness. But all too often, we forget. And forgetfulness often doesn’t happen all at once, but gradually our memories erode like stones by the seashore. Prayer becomes simply rote, then neglected. Reception of the sacraments (especially confession!) becomes infrequent. One’s spiritual life becomes the discrete unit of a time-managed schedule “blocked off” on Sundays from 10 am to noon.
If the above description resonates with you, today Christ is proclaiming his good news to you. This is not because he has waited for the appropriate day on the liturgical calendar to do so (he is always calling to you). But because we fragile human beings need more explicit reminders of Christ’s call to conversion from time to time. We need Ash Wednesday because we forget. We forget that Christ’s love for us calls for our love in response. We forget that our love for him is lived out in a life of prayer, fasting, and charity. And we forget that this life – while not easy – is joyful.
And so today we are reminded of death, so that we may live. We are reminded of our mortality, so that we might enjoy immortality. We are reminded of our sin, so that we might be reconciled to God. We are reminded on this one particular day, that Christ calls us to himself each and every day
Anthony Coleman teaches theology for the Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.