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By BENEDICT AUGUSTINE
“But when you fast,
anoint your head and wash your face,
so that you may not appear to be fasting,
except to your Father who is hidden.
And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”
Ash Wednesday sets off the Lenten season with a call to acknowledge our wretchedness. With a good measure of honesty and humility, Catholics approach the altar to receive their ashes, remembering that, in many regards, they are failures and need help. Although this day seems to dampen the joy and exuberance that we like to feel and show to others, it effectively brings some perspective and clarity to what Catholicism is all about.
The ashes and fasting of today help remind us of a crucial fact: we need Jesus. People might say this ironically—“Man, you need Jesus!”—which keeps us from fully internalizing this fact. Too many neglect this. Although some might say that a great many ex-Catholics often feel that they do not deserve God’s mercy and grace, that God hates them, I find the opposite: most ex-Catholics feel that they do not need God’s mercy, and that God loves them regardless. This is why it is often easier to approach the poor and indigent with the gospel than our neighbors living in the opulent West. A person who knows fasting, out of necessity, will find joy and wisdom in the gospel; a person who gorges regularly at Chilis or Pluckers will immediately refute the idea of fasting, and buckle under the demand set by the gospel.
With those who live in error, as opposed to those who live in ignorance, the person entrusted to instruct him in truth has twice as much work: he must not only instruct, but also correct any mistakes that have arisen beforehand. I often find myself in an odd situation having to convince someone that they are actually quite sad and in horrible danger of going to Hell. Telling them that God has a plan for him and desires faith, hope, and love does not suffice. Enjoying the fruits of modern technology, secular amorality, and unbridled hedonism, the realities of sin and death do not seem all that important to the nonbeliever. They do not need Jesus.
We never see how the story ends for that complacent soul who does not see any need to change. Most Catholics, myself included, tend to try and forget the very real possibility of that person smoldering in Hell for eternity—many, and I am not one of this group, believe that they will have a place in heaven in spite of themselves. Scripture suggests that Jesus desires more from his disciples, both the ones who believe and the ones who have fallen away. We should take in Christ’s words, understand our need for Him, and be honest with our friends and stop hiding our spirituality for the sake politeness and congeniality.
Receiving the ashes and fasting do not equate to “Catholic guilt” as dissenters like to say. They represent the “Catholic dependence on Christ,” not alliance, nor support, but dependence. Feeling light-headed after so much fasting, and looking like a fool from the black smudge on our foreheads, we should learn to derive our joy and livelihood from Christ Himself. Without His love, we truly are hardly more than dirt, hardly different from Adam; on our own, we are starved and we are foolish. While atheists stupidly embrace this materialist vision with enthusiasm, Catholics should recoil and come to their senses.
Ash Wednesday restores a sense of sanity. Early 20th century apologists, inundated with so much psychobabble and existentialist conundrums, used the word “sanity” frequently. They realized that they lived in an off-balanced insane world, smitten with socialism, fascism, and technological progress. Nice as these things sounded, with the order and ease they promised, Catholics had to remember any salvation outside of Christ was perdition—“For you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gn 3:19). We live in such world today, although entertainment and media probably play a bigger role in promising the moon than government systems.
Therefore, let us put aside this nonsense. As St. Paul says, “Now is the day of salvation.” Let’s pledge our lives to Christ since we know quite well what we are without Him. Then, after Lent, when Easter comes, we can rise with Him and find true peace and joy.