1994 Feb 20 – 1st Sun Lent (Bulletin Letters)
Cycle B Ash Wed
“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Did you ever try to explain to a class of First Graders the meaning of the ashes used during Ash Wednesday’s services? That was my formidable task last Monday at St. Alberts grade school.
Usually, when I’m with the First Graders on Monday mornings, the teachers hand me a picture Bible Story Book to read and show to the three First Grade classes. These are books especially suited for five and six year olds. It’s now a familiar weekly ritual for me and the three First Grade classes. And I’m very comfortable playing the role of bible story teller. I’m in each class room 20 minutes, long enough to read the bible stories, keep the kids attention and get out before I lose control. By the time I get to the third class room, I know the text so well I’m almost acting out the stories. Its more fun than work.
This week was different. Lent was starting and the children were told that they would receive ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday. Some of the kids were scared. They didn’t understand what it meant. It was left to me, the priest, to explain to them the meaning of the ashes.
Well, I tried the best I could. At first, I asked them right out, “What do you think the ashes represent?” “Jesus” one of them said. “God,” another. “No… not exactly.” I said.
Than I tried another approach, “What happens to our bodies when we die?” “We go to heaven”, one replied. “Yes….that’s true”, I said. “But you have to die before you can go to heaven,” I told them.
“Everybody has got to die sometime. Which one of you will be around a hundred years from now?” I asked them. Everyone of them raised their hand. Right than and there I knew I was in trouble and in over my head.
I did the best I could. But I doubt if much of what I told the First Graders this week made much sense to them.
The truth is, Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent is an adult experience. Its the rare First Grader who can fully understand the meaning of the symbol of the ashes on Ash Wednesday. To really understand the meaning of the ashes, a person must have some sense of their own mortality.
Ashes are a powerful symbol for those who have experienced a death in their lives. They represent the utter futility of life that ends in the grave. Anyone who has buried a loved one and has walked away from their open grave knows what I am talking about. And no body escapes this life alive. There is an open grave awaiting each one of us.
It is precisely on this issue that our whole Faith in Jesus rest. If there is no life after death than all we say and believe about Jesus Christ is a fraud. The ashes placed on our foreheads on the Ash Wednesday serve to remind us of this central claim of our Faith.
In the eyes of the World, such a believe in life after death is foolish. Equally as foolish are those who try to live their lifes by Jesus’s ethic of universal and unconditional love of neighbor. Believe in eternal life and the practice Jesus’s radical ethic of love are necessarily connected.
Lent is the season when we review weather our believe in eternal life and our practice of love are one and the same. They don’t often match. That’s way we must continually seek God’s forgiveness and mercy. Still, we should always strive to make them one, knowing God will make up the difference as long as we keep trying.
Eternal life, like faith is not automatic. It’s not a given. It’s a gift. If we truly have accepted this gift, it can be measured by the lifes of love we live.