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Detail from a 14th century diptych in the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore

Detail from a 14th century diptych in the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD

In his meditations on the liturgical year the saintly Bishop Richard Challoner recalls an important lesson found in the texts of today’s Mass. In the reading from the prophet Joel the Lord God calls us to conversion: Be converted to me with all your heart, in fasting, and in weeping, and in mourning; the ashes we receive are a sign of that—‘an emblem of contrition and humility’— and thus an exterior reminder of an interior disposition. To receive the ashes is to give expression to a spiritual reality which is presumed to exist in us; by bearing the mark of the ashes we affirm something that (at least in theory) is already present in our lives.

In her wisdom, however, the Church knows that we fall short of this ideal and so recalls us to the standard demanded of us by baptism through the stark character of this Lenten season. The ash we receive, which Bishop Challoner calls ‘a remembrance of our mortality, of our frail composition, and of our hasty return to our mother earth’, is a sign of the death we deserve; a reminder of the result of sin and the vacuum that exists by our rejection of the Lord’s grace. Yet we receive those ashes in the sign of the cross. They are a bitter warning, but by them is also revealed the means of our salvation. As the baptismal font is both the tomb of our death to sin and the place of our birth into eternal life, so by accepting these ashes as a memento mori we are enjoined to embrace that which itself kills sin and returns us to the Lord, and to the unending life he offers.

This of course requires of us a response. The choice between life and death is one presented to us each day of our lives, but even more so in these days of Lent. Thus the threefold nature of this season—prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—is for us the means of embracing the cross, thereby rejecting the inevitability of death and seeking to join with Christ in the eternal life he has won for us by the merits of that same cross. By engaging in an intense and courageous spiritual battle in this holy season, by denying ourselves and submitting to Christ, we seek to loosen the bonds of death that bind us, and instead embrace the life-giving cross by which eternal life may be ours. We rightly call this denial and submission our sacrifice. By conforming ourselves to the pattern of the Lord’s cross we put to death our own will and inclination to sin, annihilating our selves in order to become only vessels in whom Christ can dwell. With Cardinal Newman we thus pray: ‘Shine through me [O Lord], and be so in me that every soul I come in contact with may feel your presence in my soul’.

This sacrifice, which derives its meaning from the sacrifice of the cross, is presented to us perfectly in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Here we see in sign and reality what is required of us in this Lenten pilgrimage, and in Holy Communion are fed that we might have the grace to fulfill it. In the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, re-presented for us in an unbloody manner in the Mass, we see the complete submission of the individual, that is Christ, to the will of the Father; a submission which is in turn required of us, if we desire to share in the fruits of that sacrifice: the eternal life and bliss of the kingdom of heaven.

May the graces which flow from our offering of the Mass strengthen us in this resolve. May we find here the courage to embrace more fully the sacrifice to which we are called in this privileged season of the Church’s life. And may we cling ever more fervently to the cross which is presented anew to us in these days, that by so doing we may pass through the veil of our earthly death not simply to inherit the dust and ash of our mortality, but to gain the ultimate prize which is the glorious splendour of everlasting life with Christ in God.