Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Riding high

by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register

(From the Feb. 24, 2005 edition of the Inland Register)

Father Michael Savelesky Arriving for Mass last Sunday with his mother in tow, a little five-year-old sternly admonished me, “Don’t you make my face dirty again!” The firm defense of his forehead with both hands demonstrated that he meant business, too!

The boy’s mother and I both had a good laugh. Obviously, the child was making a frightened reference to the ashes he had received on Ash Wednesday. For this little boy, the bold Sign of the Cross smudged on his forehead that day was merely dirt. And as all little boys are told by their parents, they are not to go about life with a dirty face.

This little dude numbered among the thousands who, in the tradition of the Prophet Joel, now have gathered once again before the altar of the Lord to confess their brokenness and seek greater faithfulness to a covenant relationship with God. As parishioners – young and old alike – responded to the Lord’s call to a season of repentance, they were marked with the traditional Catholic sign that Lent indeed had begun. For this budding disciple of Jesus, the ashes were but a dirty smudge. Like his elders, his ears heard the challenge that accompanied the sign: “Remember, you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” But his boy was riding high in the excitement of a whole life before him. For him the sign was unwelcome dirt. The words reached his ears but had no transforming effect. Obviously, his youthful heart would have some lessons to learn as he matures.

The boy’s reaction to his experience on Ash Wednesday set me pondering. I wonder what we adults truly experienced as our foreheads were marked by the same darkened thumb and whose ears heard the same words. After years – centuries! – of engaging in this traditional Ash Wednesday devotion, have we grown numb to its radical significance? Do we truly realize that without a life in union with God – living by the very breath of the Spirit we receive as sons and daughters – we are nothing but dust? That without God we are mere dust-balls cascading madly though life, if not the universe?

Figuratively, if not literally, the mark of the cross on Ash Wednesday draws into question all that we do with the work of our hands. Ash Wednesday has a way of bring us back down to earth from where all our frantic behavior has led or pushed us. Ash Wednesday, properly noted, forces us to regain perspective on our busy lives.

Perhaps because of Pope John Paul II’s bout with this flu that hospitalized him this past Ash Wednesday, I found myself reflecting on another liturgical setting when ashes play an equally important function. It happens at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome – and has for centuries. But because popes do not come and go as rapidly as calendar pages are turned, it happens only rarely. The occasion is indeed the public celebration of the pope’s election as Supreme Pontiff of the Holy Roman Catholic Church. (We used to call it his “consecration.”) As the new Pontiff was carried through the cheering crowds, a little monk dressed intentionally in simple garb tosses ashes before the pope and his entourage, chanting all the while, Sic transit gloria mundi! – “Thus passes the glory of the world.” Riding high in his chair (until Pope Paul VI put an end to this form of elevation) the pope himself is to hear the truth echoed in that ancient phrase. In ourselves – and despite all that the world champions – we are nothing but passing memories. What a humbling reminder to hear on a day of glorious celebration and adulation!

On Ash Wednesday no little monk scattered ashes in our paths and admonished us about the passing glories of the world. Or was there? The mark of the ashes on our foreheads should have had the same effect. The older we get, the busier we seem to get, and the further away from the truer and deeper things of life we are tempted to drift. Even grade school children, I have discovered, nowadays use date books to monitor and plan all that they have to do. Miles to go each day before they sleep; miles to go before they die.

Yes, die.

In our world or a thousand preoccupations we avoid that subject like little children running from dirty smudges. In its own powerful way Lent – and especially the liturgical ceremony that begins the season – knocks us off our high horses – quite literally, if we enter the season with the correct disposition of heart. Our daily, monthly and annual calendars are packed with activities, events and appointments. But to what end, really?

When we die to ourselves in Christ Jesus and rise with him, all the good that we do triumphs and lives on. Apart from him, we can do nothing that really matters or really lasts. As sons and daughters of God, we are not mere conglomerates of cosmic dust which have evolved into a stage of self-consciousness. We are children willed into existence by a Love which knows no limits, not even death.

Every once in a while, it is healthy for our spiritual journey to be reminded of the truth. Because it really isn’t nice to go about with a dirty face, the ashes disappeared from our foreheads days ago. But let’s hope their significance has not escaped our hearts: We are dust and (without God) all we do is dust as well.

(Father Savelesky is pastor of Assumption Parish in Spokane. His book, Catholics Believe, is available from Harcourt Religion Publishers.) (Download an order form in pdf format to print)

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