Author: Fr. Michael Byron
March 06, 2019

Why do we keep doing this?  Why, year after year, do we keep coming back for ashes, for the remembering, for the recommitment?  Not a one of us is required to be here today, according to the rules of the church (if that is your motivator).  And yet we keep coming.  And it’s not because the report card of our present human behavior is outstanding—either individually or collectively, either as a church or as a nation.  We don’t arrive here to bask in the glow of how well we are doing in virtue.  The language of our Sacred Scripture and of our prayers is fairly somber and sober and challenging.  It seems that there is something in our hard wiring as human beings that requires, and even rejoices, in an annual raising of two questions:

1. Who are we?  And how are we?
2. Who is God?  And how is God?

So, for just a moment, maybe we can again ponder the right responses to these questions.  First, given that we seem to spend so much time and energy and passion and priority trying to convince ourselves and everybody else that we are in control of our life and the life of the world, couldn’t it be a sweet relief to recall again that ultimately we are not, and we don’t have to be, and that is actually good news?  Simply to drop all of our pretentions and our defenses, and to stop thinking that our salvation is ever the result of anything that we can do well enough in order to please God or anybody else?  It’s not.  We are vulnerable.  We are prone to weakness.  We sin.  And yes, in the end, we are dust.  If our life’s worth were ever strictly up to us, we’d be without hope.  Which brings us to the second question:  Who and how is God?

God is the one who knows very well everything I have just said, and who remains passionate about loving, forgiving, healing and understanding us in spite of it all—because it is God who made us and who wishes us to live well, both now and for eternity.  It’s not God’s mind that needs to be changed about us.  It’s ours.

“Gracious and merciful is He,” says the Prophet Joel, “Slow to anger and rich in kindness and relenting in punishment.”  It is he who takes pity on the weaklings whom he loves.  All that is before we do anything to attempt to control how God feels about us.  Isn’t that a blessing?  So the ashes that we are about to feel on our faces are meant not so much to be a groveling in self-pity as they are meant to be a liberating acknowledgement, and honesty about what is simply true—today and always—about who we are and how God is.  And to face the truth, as Jesus has told us, is always to be set free.

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