I remember quite distinctly my first Ash Wednesday as a priest. As can often be the case, just before Mass began, things began to unravel. There were not enough hosts. There were not enough programs. We had to work quickly; the church had maxed capacity and was at standing room only!
Almost to herself, yet audibly enough for me to hear, one of the wizened parish sacristans muttered ruefully, “You would think they would come for the mercy, too.” Straightening from my task and adjusting my microphone, I looked at her questioningly. “Every Sunday, Father. Why don’t they come then, too?”
In a certain sense, it is not difficult to see why a day like Ash Wednesday resonates with the average Christian. A day of atonement, a day to recognize one’s faults, sins, and limitations: at a very deep level, despite all that we do to curate, tone, or cultivate our self-image, we all feel and live with our wounds. We put on a brave face and try our best to move forward; but so often, life simply feels like we are barely holding on—knuckles turning white—for as long as we can until things fall apart. Inevitably, they do, and we know this.
We pull away from the order, discipline, and virtue we have worked so desperately to nurture, falling back into disordered chaos.
But in that place of disorder, we can sometimes find ourselves more at ease. Because at least in our sinfulness, we can keep a distance between ourselves and Jesus—just as St. Peter responded, when Jesus manifested his authority over creation at the large catch of fish, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8) It is in this place of sinful self-awareness that Jesus always responds in twofold fashion: have no fear, and follow me.
And yet, we choose ashes over mercy, sin over freedom, and isolation over communion. Our churches should be overflowing—especially on the Day of Mercy—because in that place and encounter with the merciful love of Jesus, we become emboldened and illuminated by his Eucharistic Presence which rests in our hearts. “Abide in me as I abide in you.” (John 15:4) Resting in Jesus, he rests in us, and we are sent forth as light, as salt, and as leaven for the world. For this reason, we are exhorted by the need to be “consistent in bringing the love of Christ not only to our personal lives, but also to every dimension of our public lives” (The Meaning of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church, 35).
In this way, we can begin to see the potential pitfalls in the penitential season of Lent. The daily devotional practices and disciplines, as well as the additional prayers and penance, must lead us to a growth in faith, hope, and charity. But the true test of these virtues is one that draws us out of ourselves to a place of true encounter with others in our life, especially the poorest and most vulnerable in our midst.
Only in that place of oblation, self-gift, and true denial does one find freedom, peace and joy. It begins and ends with an awareness of our sinfulness but also an acceptance of Jesus’ invitation to not be afraid and follow him, which overflows from the depths of his loving mercy. In this manner, the Eucharist remains the truest place of this encounter where Jesus, in abject self-abasement, comes to us in true humility. He receives us as we receive him. In communion with Jesus, our fears are quelled, and from that place he sends us forth to be his emissaries of light and peace.
Do I fear holiness more than I fear sin?
In expressing our love for others, especially the most poor and vulnerable, the Works of Mercy hold a special place. Consider the corporal works of mercy (CCC #2447), and choose one practice or discipline devoted to satisfying that work of mercy in your community.
God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments.
Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.