Called to Ongoing Conversion: Death,Lent and Ashes
the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified " (Is. 61:1-3).
A garland instead of ashes. A crown for sorrow. A wreath for mourning. Gladness for repentance. Praise for humiliation. According to the prophets, when the Messiah of God came, He would change our grieving and sorrow into something completely different. We will not mourn and cry forever. Praise God! After offering up our sufferings in communion with Christ's, God gives us beauty in exchange for ashes.
In the New Testament, Jesus offers us a fuller picture for this exchange. In Matthew 5:1-12 we see the "ashen" lot of qualities of those populating the Kingdom of Heaven. The passage almost seems to read, "Blessed are the poor, the depressed, the weak, the malnourished, the dehydrated, the doormat, the persecuted, harassed and slandered, for they will be blessed."
Jesus seems to teach that somehow these characteristics bring perfect happiness, or "blessedness," yet one is left with the distinct impression that the qualifications are so miserable that he might not want to be "blessed" after all. Even so, somehow the magnitude of the blessings Jesus promises tempt one to take a closer look, as people with these "weaknesses" are said to experience largess, abundance, happiness and favor, the meaning of "blessed."
By their trials the righteous flourished...
The trouble with our reaction to these verses is the same one confronted by Ash Wednesday: it is the trouble of suffering and mortality. Simply put, we abhor it! We seek strength, power, praise, fame, glory, ease, luxury. "'You seek, therefore, a thing which is not only not needed, but which also obscures the glory of my power.' Here [St. Paul] hints at another thing also, namely, that in proportion as the trials waxed in intensity, in the same proportion the grace was increased and continued.By their trials the righteous flourished" (Chrysostom on 2 Cor. 26).
"Only faith can discern [God's omnipotence] when it is 'made perfect in weakness'" (CCC 268). Moderns often view weakness in themselves and others as distasteful and repugnant, something to be ignored or borne. Yet the Scriptures say that God only chooses the weak, and that He uniquely blesses the suffering.
We can, therefore, be comforted by and embrace the ashes we are left with when we offer everything to God, for even our weaknesses are strength when embraced and offered to Him to be wholly transformed and consumed on the altar of the Cross. Jesus embraced His own weakness, the sacrificial ashes, of His death, "despising the shame" all the way, but it was the final, sure exchange of ashes for beauty, "the joy set before Him, [that] he endured the Cross" (Heb. 12:2).
The ashes of Lent then, should be viewed as a time to purposely trouble ourselves toward the renewal of who we really are before God. This is the core of the Lenten experience. To acknowledge, to anticipate the day when we will stand before God and be judged, to prepare well for the hour of our death, we must sacrifice our sin on the altar in the sure hope of rising to new life in Christ - the garland of life for our sacrificial ashes of sin.
Embracing our Lenten ashes means we recognize the need for deeper conversion. Conversion always involves "giving something up" in some form, but the goal is not to postpone sin for the duration of Lent, but to root it out of our lives forever. Conversion means completely leaving behind old ways of living, perceiving, and behaving in order to embrace the beauty and crown of new life in Christ.
To do that, we must actively acknowledge our weaknesses, our guilt for the sins that led to Christ's Passion and death, and open ourselves to grief - no matter what provokes it. We must move through Lent from the mourning of ashes to the glory of garlands. The sorrow of Lent leads to the beauty and joy of renewal and conversion at Easter.
Let us pray for all of those who will die physically this day, and this Lent, and those who will die to sin in the next 40 days and be received into the Church at Easter. May we all receive garlands for ashes this Easter. +
Sonja Corbitt is a Catholic speaker, Scripture study author, and a contributing writer for Catholic Online. To order your advance copy of the DVD-driven Bible study Soul of the World, The Heart as God's Dwelling Place, visit pursuingthesummit.com.
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Pope Benedict XVI's Prayer Intentions for January 2013
General Intention: The Faith of Christians. That in this Year of Faith Christians may deepen their knowledge of the mystery of Christ and witness joyfully to the gift of faith in him.
Missionary Intention: Middle Eastern Christians. That the Christian communities of the Middle East, often discriminated against, may receive from the Holy Spirit the strength of fidelity and perseverance.
Keywords: death, Lent, ashes
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