On Guilt and Ash Wednesday
Father Ronan explains the origins of this Catholic Holy Day.
Everyone knows what it’s like to feel guilty—about something. Sometimes “Catholic Guilt” is the stuff of comedians and jokes. While we all laugh, we also know that our conscience is that crucial guide that aids us in navigating the turbulent waters of life.
Moral questions abound in the public square, in increasing areas of health care and, of course, in our own daily choices. With our children, we are all concerned that everything necessary is offered so that a child knows how to make the “right” choices. So the formation of our conscience, from our earliest days into the present is an ongoing, dynamic priority.
And how does that formation take place? We can all recall as children being instructed and corrected as to that which is “bad or wrong” and pointed to what is “good and right." Because children are by nature egocentric, most of our teaching is pointing a child to look outside of self toward the wellbeing of another. The idea of sharing is a good example. When urged to share a valued toy or special treat, a small child will resist—often strongly! When encouraged to specifically “do” something for another, with no apparent reward—another challenge. These are hard lessons to learn as a child and often just as difficult for adults! For, if truth be told, we are all by nature selfish. It started out in the Garden of Eden when our first parents acted against God in selfish choices, and we have inherited that character. In our tradition we call this “Original Sin.”
On Wednesday, we begin the holy season of Lent. Ash Wednesday brings Christians to their churches to pray and to receive the mark of a smudge of ash on their foreheads. To “get your ashes” is an imperative, and to wear that mark throughout the day is a sign to others of your faith and desire to practice it.
Most of us understand that the ashes have something to do with penance and repentance. Going back to Old Testament times, the use of ashes was common as an act of repenting for sin. At the same time, the prophets criticized the ritual use of ashes as an actual penance, explaining it ought to be a sign of a deeper repentance and conversion. And this conversion of heart points us in the same direction as a parent teaching a child: it is good to share, to be generous and thoughtful, and to be respectful and kind. Conversely, it is “bad” when we are not …
As I write this, the playgroup in the hall above my office is in full swing! I can hear the laughter and footfall of fifty children, and I can also hear a child screaming full throttle, no doubt because a desired toy was not shared. You and I do not scream when we do not get what we want, yet our ego will not easily be denied. We will protest in one way or another! Our conscience tells us so and the guilt we know by our selfishness is real.
And yet there is one antidote, and it is full proof. Jesus came among us to teach us to love one another as He has loved us. That is a tall order! And yet this message, to both come to know the measure of God’s love for us and seek to imitate it in our life with one another, is the singular path to human wholeness and joy.
Ash Wednesday is a gift to me and you. It is a reminder of the ongoing call for each of us, which we will hear as the minister smudges those ashes on our foreheads, to: “Turn away from sin and follow the Gospel of Christ”.