Ashes and hearts go hand-in-hand at Lent

Feb 09, 2018
  • By Lorraine V. Murray
  • For the AJC
Lorraine V. Murray

Talk about worlds colliding. This year Ash Wednesday, the opening salvo to Lent, falls on Valentine’s Day, celebrated with hearts and chocolates.

On Ash Wednesday, Catholics and many other Christians receive ashes, drawn in a cross, upon their foreheads.

In Catholic churches, priests traditionally intoned, “You are dust and to dust you shall return,” although today some say, “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”

Admittedly, ashes and hearts seem like odd bedfellows, but I’d say Lent and love go hand-in-hand.

When I was a child, I saw no connection between my reluctant sacrifices during the 40 days leading to Easter and the love I was expected to show God.

You see, my image of God was largely based on my earthly father, a quiet, distant man who had little time for me.

He wasn’t the kind of dad who got down on the floor to play with kids, nor was he inclined toward affectionate outbursts.

He did, however, erupt in anger when my sister or I accidentally upended a glass at supper, causing a river of milk to wend its way across the table.

Based on my limited evidence, I pictured God as a faraway old man in the sky, who was prone to anger.

As for Lent, it was an annoying season that involved curtailing my joys and running the risk of provoking divine fury when I cheated.

And I certainly did cheat, once I discovered pepperoni pizza never tasted as good during the week as on Friday, a meatless day for Catholics.

And I must confess that during Lent, the occasional forbidden chocolate cookie was especially toothsome.

As an adult, I realized the 40 days of Lent aren’t intended to cause resentment and guilt. Sacrificing some pleasure — sweets, wine, meat, shopping, Netflix— helps us repent for past sins.

Although some clergy rarely utter the word “sin,” there’s a congregational prayer at every Sunday Mass, year round, called the Confiteor, asking God’s forgiveness for “what I have done and what I have failed to do.”

And if this doesn’t define old-fashioned, garden-variety sin, I don’t know what does.

Have I overindulged at the mall? Lied to get out of uncomfortable fixes? Envied friends for their posh homes?

Have I failed to notice folks in need? Neglected my family?

Christians believe Jesus died for the world’s transgressions —past, present and future —which include the sins we commit today.

We embrace fasting at Lent as preparation for feasting at Easter, when we joyfully proclaim the Resurrection.

The Gospels tell us Christ lived, suffered and died because “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

If Christ could surrender his life for me, what small token of love might I give him? Pricey lattes at the fancy cafe? That weekly shopping spree? The evening chocolates I have while watching movies?

Alms-giving also is part of Lent, so some sacrifices go hand-in-hand with helping my neighbor. The less I splurge on designer clothing, the more money I can put in the collection basket for the poor.

In his poem “O God I Love Thee,” Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins writes, “Why should I not love thee, Jesu, so much in love with me?”

On the face of it, Lent might seem like a dreary season of sackcloth and ashes, and tuna fish sandwiches, but it’s a chapter in the eternal love story starring Jesus Christ.

After all, Jesus explained his death on the cross by saying, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

And the collision of Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday sends a striking message, because the ashen crosses we bear on our foreheads symbolize the deepest, most enduring love the world has ever seen.