Monday, February 04, 2008

The Ashes of Lent and the Water of Easter

The Ashes of Lent and the Water of Easter

Leo R. Ocampo
Ash Wednesday signals the beginning of Lent, a season of cleansing and renewal preparing us for Easter. On this day, ashes are traced on our foreheads in the form of a Cross as we are told: “Turn away from sin and believe in the Good News.” You may find it ironic that we soil ourselves with ashes as we begin this special time when we are supposed to clean up and renew our lives. But looking a little closer at the symbol of the day and two familiar stories from the Hebrew Scriptures may show us the meaning of this important ritual and the entire season of Lent.

Turn Away from Sin

The ashes that we use come from the palm branches that were blessed during last year’s Palm Sunday. The burning of these dried and withered palms signify our dying to our old selves, once green and fresh in our commitment to Christ, which may have become dull and lifeless because of complacency and sin.

We burn to make space for something new and something better. Since ancient times, our ancestors have burned forests to clear up space where they can live and plant. We burn fat to build more muscle. Even in this modern age, we burn computer files to accommodate new documents and more important programs in our hard drives.

Thus, we observe the season of Lent and its threefold discipline of fasting, prayer and almsgiving for us to slowly and gradually die to our old selves and make space for something new and something better. We fast and try to abstain from things we usually binge in—not only meat but perhaps soda, TV or computer games—to restrain our impulsive attitudes and have more self-control. We pray some more—not just mumbling our usual prayers but perhaps looking at ourselves some more in front of the mirror and before God—to temper our restlessness and to focus again on the things that really matter in life. We give some more of what we have to others more in need—not just the usual coin to a beggar but perhaps more kindness and forgiveness to those who frequently get on our nerves—to overcome our self-centeredness and cultivate compassion.

Believe in the Good News

The Hebrew Scriptures shows us the good that God can create from ashes. In the Second Creation Story, we see a dry and barren wasteland where nothing could be found:
At the time when the LORD God made the earth and the heavens—while as yet there was no field shrub on earth and no grass of the field had sprouted, for the LORD God had sent no rain upon the earth and there was no man to till the soil… (Gen 2: 4)

Suddenly, water gushes out of nowhere and begins to water the parched ground. We see God form man from the dust of the earth with his own very hands and blow into his nostrils the breath of life.

…but a stream was welling up out of the earth and was watering all the surface of the ground—the LORD God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being. (Gen 2: 6-7)

God’s work of Creation does not stop there. After a time of terrible destruction, when the people of Israel were defeated by the Babylonians—their city burned to the ground and the people hopelessly scattered like ashes away from the Promised Land—the Lord transports the prophet Ezekiel back to the battlefield full of dry, decaying bones, and asks him:

“Son of man, can these bones come to life? Prophesy over these bones, and say to them: Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: See! I will bring spirit into you, that you may come to life.” (Ezekiel 37: 3-5)

As the prophet proclaimed God’s Word, the ashes began to form and cover the dead, withered bones with sinews, flesh and skin. God then breathes on them once again with his spirit and gives them life.

This is the Good News of Lent. From the ashes of our dying to self, God himself will form something new and something better. As we come to Mass on Easter morning, we are sprinkled with refreshing water to irrigate our old, lifeless dust and raise us to new life.

Traced in the Form of a Cross

The ashes of our dying to self are traced on our foreheads in the form of a Cross to remind us of the even deeper meaning of what we are trying to do. We do not just die to ourselves but we die with Christ who was sinless and pure but did not feel ashamed to soil himself with our life, in all its dryness and dullness, and even our death. God stoops to the ground once again and with his loving hands, now bloodied and nailed to the wood of the Cross, forms us from the dust of the earth and the ashes of our dying.

Receiving the ashes means accepting the challenge to clean up our lives and change ourselves for better with the assurance that God himself will carry our efforts through. He does not tire of ever creating so this should give us the courage to keep on purifying and improving ourselves. Year in and year out, he gifts us with Lent, an opportune time to burn bad habits, rid our lives of useless clutter and allow him to form of us, something new and something better.

This is the mystery of the Cross, which we celebrate during the season of Lent and ought to live out throughout our lives: we die to ourselves in union with Christ so that the Father may also raise us together with him to newness of life in the Spirit. If we die with Christ in the Cross of Lent, we shall surely be refreshed and created anew by the water of Easter—resplendently rising from the ashes in glorious Resurrection!