Here we are at the beginning of another Lent, gathered here in this liturgical assembly. We have just heard the Word of God proclaimed. And it is precisely that Word of God that is the beginning of our Lenten journey, specifically, the words of the prophet Joel, “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart….” Can you hear God’s desire, God’s yearning, God’s loving plea in those words? This is the beginning, the birthplace of Lent: God’s loving, pleading desire.
The ashes we will bless are the burned remnants from last Passion Sunday’s palms. And sometimes there is a grittiness to them. And well there should be. For, aside from being literally the gritty remains of palms, they symbolize the gritty remains of our earthly life, the gritty remains of our fallen humanity, our sinfulness, our mortality. But this very real, gritty truth of our brokenness is not what moves us, impels us to enter upon another Lent. What moves us to come forward and receive these ashes is not despair but hope. Hope rooted in our hearing again the loving plea of our God to return “even now.”
These ashes represent our very real, existential human misery, in all its manifold manifestations. Having them placed on our foreheads we publicly acknowledge our human misery in all its personal and communal dimensions. But this public acknowledgment is not an expression of some feeble satisfaction in mediocrity, in being less than we can or are meant to be. It is not a wallowing in our misery. Rather it is a drowning in God’s mercy.
“Even now, says the Lord, return to me….” God knew all the times the Israelites had turned from Him; and He even knew all the times they would continue to turn from Him in the future. And yet, He yearns for them to return. The Curé of Ars always encouraged his penitents to plunge into the “flood of divine mercy” which sweeps away everything in its vehemence. If someone was troubled by the thought of his or her own weakness and inconstancy, and fearful of sinning again, the Curé would unveil God’s secret in a beautiful and touching expression: “The good Lord knows everything. Even before you confess, He already knows that you will sin again and yet He forgives you. How great is the love of our God who goes so far as to voluntarily forget the future, in order to forgive us!” Even now, brothers and sisters, even now!
Excerpts from Abbot Damian's Homily for Ash Wednesday.