Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

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

Dirty face

by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register

(From the February 21, 2013 edition of the Inland Register)

Father Michael Savelesky When we were little kids, being accused of having a “dirty face” was a bit of a personal insult. Somehow we learned that smudges were not to be part of our visage. And isn’t it interesting that even as adults we still try to correct the appearance of someone who unwittingly has that blotch on their cheek or that flake-of-a-meal on their chin? We communicate to them awkwardly to wipe away the offending intruder. Interesting, isn’t it, this invitation to remove even that little something which gets in the way of us seeing the clear, true visage?

For the little boy (or girl) who has got the face a bit dirty from catching frogs in the creek – or the unsuspecting adult whose pizza has stuck where it should not be – the improperly located piece of earth is merely an undesirable embarrassment. Have we not all been instructed to not go about with a face dirtied in such a manner?

Then is it not a source of ironic puzzlement that, like the people of God for centuries, Ash Wednesday last week gathered us once again as a people to confess our brokenness and to seek greater faithfulness to our covenant relationship with God? And to push aside any intruding hair to ask for, and receive on our foreheads, an intentional smudge of burnt ash? Young and old alike have responded to the Lord’s call to a season of repentance. With the liturgical distribution of ashes we were marked on our face with the traditional Catholic sign that Lent indeed had begun. For the disciple of Jesus, these ashes are hardly a dirty, embarrassing and unwanted smudge.

The words which accompanied the imposition of ashes last week brought to our hearts the significance of the smudge. Did we not hear the words the Church spoke to us: “Remember, you are dust and unto dust you shall return”? These words reach our ears, but they also must have a transforming effect in our lives. If not, the imposition is a comforting, but empty, practice of Catholic piety. Obviously, the experience should challenge us with ever-increasing intensity.

Our experience on Ash Wednesday should set us pondering. What do we truly experience as our foreheads are marked by a darkened thumb and whose ears have heard those words? After years – centuries! – of engaging in this traditional Ash Wednesday devotion, have we followers of Jesus 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 indeed are mere dust-balls cascading madly though life, if not the universe?

Figuratively, if not literally, the mark of the cross on our foreheads last week drew into question all that we do with the work of our hands. Ash Wednesday has a way of bringing 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.

With the surprising and historic resignation of Pope Benedict XVI from the Chair of Peter, our memories may draw us to another liturgical setting when the distribution of ashes has played an equally important function. Caught off- guard – this time by circumstances of choice and not by the intervention of death – the Church is preparing itself to welcome a new Supreme Pontiff. For many, the occasion is a media bonanza; for others of more astute perception, it is evidence of the Church continuing to give witness to its living mission – keeping it all in perspective.

What used to happen at St. Peter Basilica in Rome was richly symbolic of a profound challenge to our spiritual lives. Because popes do not come and go as rapidly as calendar pages are turned, it happened rarely. The occasion was the public celebration of the pope’s “consecration” as Supreme Pontiff of the Holy Roman Catholic Church. As the new pontiff was carried through the cheering crowds, a little monk dressed intentionally in simple garb tossed 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 heard 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! Talk about someone popping your bubble!

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 as well, and the further away from the truer things of life we are tempted to drift. Even grade school children nowadays claim dominion over their little lives as they use iPads and cell phones to monitor and plan all that they have to do. “Miles to go each day before they sleep; miles to go before they die,” to paraphrase the poet. They are too young to recognize the empty, lonely emptiness of it all if a packed schedule of entertaining and busy-making activities is the purpose of life. Yes, it all ends with death.

Yes, we all will die – someday. And unto dust we shall all return.

In our world of a thousand preoccupations, we avoid that reality like little children running from dirty faces. In its own powerful way, Lent – and especially the liturgical ceremony that begins the season – challenges us to keep perspective and 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.

(Father Savelesky is pastor of the parishes in Oakesdale, Rosalia, St. John, and Tekoa, and serves as the diocese’s Moderator of the Curia.)

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