Ash Wednesday

What do you mean? That’s a common question in conversation. It usually calls for a clarification or expresses a challenge. But for this once let’s ask the question existentially: Not what do you mean? but What do you mean?[1].

As a season in our life as Catholics, Lent faces us with that question. Our spiritual mother the Church reminds us of the limitations of our lives. Diamonds may be forever, but you and I definitely are not.

For us believers the good news of Jesus Christ is that our living and dying are not all there is. There is a new meaning for us in Jesus, in our life in him.

The danger is that we can act as if the surface details are all there is. We can behave as if they make up the whole meaning of our lives. In other words, we can sin. We sin when we behave in a way that denies the meaning of God in our lives and the meaning of our relationship to him in Jesus the Lord.

Thats why St. Paul, on Ash Wednesday, urges us to be reconciled. He challenges us to look at the Cross of Jesus and see what sin can do. But then Paul urges us to take heart in the cross and resurrection of Christ, to see what salvation can do. The saving action of Jesus helps us to die to sin and rise to new life with Jesus.

The season of Lent is for this work of the mystery of Baptism in our lives as Catholics. We are called to conversion, to a turning away from our own special idolatries and a turning toward the true God in Jesus Christ. Thats the meaning and purpose of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, the three traditional Lenten practices of Catholics. These three ways of keeping Lent will take different forms in each of our lives, but they are never for their own sake, as Jesus points out when he warns us not to show off spiritually. We have ashes on our faces on Ash Wednesday to proclaim what we need (humility, truth, hope), and how good God is to give them to us.

We need to simplify. We need to get the focus back on the main point of lifes journey: life in the kingdom of God, now and forever. We need to say no to some of our distractions and indulgences, so that we are freer and more attentive to say yes to God as he meets us in our lives, especially through others.

In all these ways we can use the season of Lent to answer that question, What do you mean? We ask and answer the question as believers. So we ask Jesus, What do you want me to mean, to be, and to do for you?

And we also ask, Jesus, what do you want to mean to me? When we arrive at the end of Lent and celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus for love of us, we will be able to embrace his answer, even as his answer embraces us in love.


[1] Wednesday 6th February, 2008; Ash Wednesday. Day of fast and abstinence. [Ss Paul Miki and companions]. Readings: Joel 2:12-18. Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned-Ps 50(51):3-6, 12-14, 17. 2 Corinthians 5:20 – 6:2. Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18.
Illustration: If Pieter Bruegel the Elder enjoyed a solid reputation during his lifetime, his paintings were "even more sought after following his death" (in 1569), as Provost Morillon wrote to Cardinal de Granvelle as early as 1572. It is probably this constant demand which led the famous painter's oldest son, registered as a master in the Antwerp guild in 1584/85, to specialise in copying his father's works. The Battle of Carnival and Lent, the original of which is conserved in Vienna, is a very fine example of this. The subject matter can be found in medieval literature and plays. In the foreground, two opposing processions, the one to the left led by the replete figure of Carnival and the one to the right by the haggard figure of Lent, are about to confront each other in a burlesque parody of a joust. Here, on either side of the picture, are feasting and fasting, winter and spring (the trees to the left are leafless, those to the right have leaves), popular jollity and well-ordered charity, the ill-famed tavern and the church as the refuge of the pious soul. Whilst the father's work was not lacking in humour, the son's emphasises the encyclopaedic aspect: the many scenes accompanying the "battle" are all ceremonies or customs attached to the rites of carnival and lent, which succeed each other from Epiphany until Easter. One intriguing element for which no satisfactory explanation has yet been found is the fool guiding a couple with a torch in broad daylight in the centre of the composition. The group is walking towards the right, but with its back turned both to Carnival and the viewer.The smooth pictorial handling, the richness of the chromatic range and the subtlety of the colours, as well as the extreme care given to each detail make Brueghel the Younger's painting much more than a simple copy. In addition to its own qualities, the painting also acts as a precious witness to the original state of its model: the children lying at the entrance to the church, the old woman bent double in the cart drawn by a poor woman in rags, and the bloated body of the corpse in the right foreground have all been painted over out of prudishness at a later date on the Vienna panel. The cripple standing with a naked torso on the far right of the son's copy is also absent in the original.
Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Battle of Carnival and Lent, Oil on wood, 121,3 x 171,5 cm, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts (Brussels).

Y entonces uno se queda con la Iglesia, que me ofrece lo único que debe ofrecerme la Iglesia: el conocimiento de que ya estamos salvados –porque esa es la primera misión de la Iglesia, el anunciar la salvación gracias a Jesucristo- y el camino para alcanzar la alegría, pero sin exclusividades de buen pastor, a través de esa maravilla que es la confesión y los sacramentos. La Iglesia, sin partecitas.

laus deo virginique matris