Gospel Reflections

Feast of Ash Wednesday

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

Feast Day Reflection by Sister Maureen Lomax

Published: February 18, 2015

As the ashes mark each forehead we hear: ‘Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return’ or ‘Repent and preach/believe the Gospel.’ The first assertion establishes that we are mere mortals but the second gives us the hope of renewed faith and active cooperation in Christ’s mission.

‘Remember you are dust and to dust you will return’ made me think back to the ‘gloom and doom’ of pre-Vatican II theology. This spiritual heaviness is found in the poem Ash Wednesday, written by T.S. Eliot after his conversion to Anglicanism in 1927. Even though Eliot sees his conversion as a movement from a spiritual desert into new hope in Christ, his poem does not reflect this. The dominant tone is negative, beginning with “Because I do not to turn again, I do not hope…” Eliot goes on to express his own unworthiness in “I who am here dissembled…” and “As I am forgotten…” and so on. The ‘Lady’, the “lady of silences” and the “veiled sister” (maybe referring to his former wife and linked with Our Lady) seem to convey some hope, but Eliot seems remote from this source of goodness and redemption. Christ, the source of his salvation, is not mentioned by name but only abstractly as the ‘Word:

If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world.

Somehow the lifelessness of the ‘dust of the ashes’ together with the ‘unspoken Word’ that remains ‘unspoken’ and ‘unheard’ convey a climate of passiveness and powerlessness. Eliot fails to proclaim his new-found faith that should empower him (and other Christians) to speak and act in Christ’s name.

On the other hand, ‘Repent and preach/proclaim/believe the Gospel’ is full of hope and the possibility of renewed life in Christ. Each Lent these words spur us to ‘Be alert’, ‘Stay awake’ and to ‘Wake up the World’ (cf. Pope Francis) so that we may preach through our words, deeds and actions that ‘God is Good.’ Recently, Pope Francis said that Christians should be ‘islands of mercy’ in the ‘globalisation of indifference,’ even passing ‘beyond the boundaries of the viable Church.’ Those who meet, see and hear us, wherever we live or work, should witness the good news of God’s compassion and forgiveness: “Come back to me with all your heart” and “Let your hearts be broken, not your garments torn” from Joel 2 and echoed in Hosea.

In an article in The Times (London Edition) written after a recent visit to Iraq, Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, O.P. writes of the hopelessness experienced by the Christians who “believe the Iraqi government is indifferent to their fate; Kurdistan will offer only a temporary refuge; they put no trust in Western governments, who they believe are interested only in Iraq’s resources. They feel betrayed by the Muslim neighbours who took their houses from which they fled. They see no future at all except exile in foreign lands….from a purely secular point of view, they see no future at all.” In Arabic ‘Amal’ (everyday optimism) is the word for this kind of hope, which seems to have been lost.

But there is another Arabic word for hope, ‘Raja,’ which implies deep trust in another being, above all in God. Fr. Timothy believes he witnessed raja in these desperate Christians. Muslims he met expressed their need of the Christian presence, believing that the departure of the Christians would spell the end of their beloved Iraq. In a Muslim restaurant, he saw an image of the Last Supper and a burning light before an icon of Mary and Child. He gave a public lecture in Baghdad attended by 300 people, 70 per cent being Muslim. Muslims begged the Christians to stay: “You were here before us. We need you.” Amidst apparent human hopelessness, there are signs of hope: Christians and Muslims still live and work together, Dominicans have set up the Baghdad Academy of Human Sciences which has 500 students who are mainly Muslim, Missionaries of Charity care for abandoned disabled children of all faiths, a Dominican magazine, Christian Thought, is widely read by Muslims and helpers visit the refugee camps on a regular basis. As Fr. Timothy says “Intelligent debate, when the world is exploding, is an expression of the virtue of hope.” The memory of two children taking the sign of peace from the priest to the people during Mass (Chaldean Rite) prompted Fr.Timothy to write “These children are the messengers of hope in the future which they trust God will give, even if we cannot imagine how.” These children would seem to exemplify those who, in faith, repent and proclaim the gospel in their everyday lives. In spite of daily persecution they do not simply leave the dust to settle.

Where am I in all this? Sometimes it is easy to lose heart and to allow a sense of helplessness and even hopelessness overcome us, especially when we hear of further atrocities being carried out in the name of so-called religion. The other side of the coin is in the strong enlivening symbolism as millions of Christians renew their desire to pray, fast and give to others, especially during Lent. This is what Ash Wednesday means to me.

How do I respond to the Gospel call to prayer, fasting and almsgiving? Whatever I do it is clear that God, my Father, is at the centre of it all. Let us not ignore the encouragement to act quietly, without ostentation, preferably in secret. The oiling on your head, washing your face and looking cheerful (no gloomy look or long faces), can be applied all-round. There is no room for pretended solemnity, gravity or piety. Hypocrites who seek praise will be rewarded, but not by God. But God will reward true prayer (note not ‘prayers’), fasting from excess in any form and sharing what we have (and are) with others. Our hope (raja) is closely linked with those who suffer for their faith. We pray, fast and give so that others may eventually enjoy both amal and raja in their daily lives. The reality of our fragmented world may make us sad, but a collective SNDdeN response to a call to “contemplative listening, ongoing dialogue and critical social analysis that moves us to action” gives us great hope on our journey of faith. God is good!



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