'You Are Dust'
Lent, which begins today — Ash Wednesday — is not supposed to be easy.
Right away, we confront an uncomfortable truth: "Remember, you are dust, and to dust you will return."
That's what the priest tells us as he smears the burned residue of palm fronds upon our foreheads. Not exactly the feel-good sentiments that inspire merriment. (Hallmark doesn't make Ash Wednesday greeting cards.)
But, of course, Lent's arduous, 40-day journey leads to the greatest of all possible rewards: our salvation.
Now, about that arduous journey: Each Lent an expectant silence seems to fill the air. The lights and music of Christmas become a distant memory. We are left with our sinful selves and with a choice to make — a choice to draw closer to our Merciful Savior who longs for us to return to Him.
We confront that choice each moment of each day of the year. But on Ash Wednesday, when we allow our skin to be smeared, the stakes of our salvation somehow seem more real. Maybe it's because we become public penitents — literally "marked" men and women.
Unlike the "marked" men and women of espionage films who are secretly watched by people who seek to do them harm, we Christians know we are being watched — watched over, that is to say, by our Merciful Savior. He, of course, doesn't seek to do us harm. It is we who harm ourselves when we refuse to humble our hearts, turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.
But now that we've become "marked" men and women, how are we to use this time of Lent? How are we to experience deeper intimacy with our Savior? How are we to receive the great graces He is offering us?
Think of Lent as a form of "spiritual boot camp." Our conditioning, our training, our push-ups come in the form of prayer, reflection and penance.
I repeat: It's not supposed to be easy. But our Lord and Our Blessed Mother are here to help us.
First, we must confront our sins.
During Lent, we retrace Christ's steps out into the desert. There, Christ, while preparing for His ministry, successfully resisted Satan's temptations. For our part, during Lent, we prepare to live by His Word. So, with strength, resolve and sincerity of heart, we are called to resist evil.
We cannot do it alone. We must lean on our Lord and lean on Our Blessed Mother in prayer. Indeed, prayer is our Lord's "native tongue." Through the Diary of St. Faustina, our Lord teaches us how we may speak to Him.
He tells the sinful soul: "Be not afraid of your Savior, O sinful soul ... be willing to talk openly with your God of mercy who wants to speak words of pardon and lavish His graces on you. How dear your soul is to Me!" (1485).
The traditional Marian prayer, the Memorare, so beautifully emphasizes how Mary can play a role in our salvation:
Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection, implored your help or sought your intercession was left unaided. Inspired with confidence, I fly to you, O virgin of virgins, my Mother. To you I come, before you I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in your mercy, hear and answer me. Amen.
This Lent, confide in our Lord and Our Lady. Stand before them, "sinful and sorrowful." Ask Our Lady for her intercession that you may fulfill Christ's exhortation to "repent, and believe in the Gospel" (Mk 1:15). Take our Lord at His word when He says to St. Faustina: "No soul that has called upon My mercy has ever been disappointed" (Diary, 1541).
Second, this Lenten season pay careful attention to respond to the call of Christ.
Christ taught: "If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me" (Lk 9:23).
How do you deny yourself? You must be willing to surrender your vices, your pride, your sins. You must be willing to search your heart and decide who or what sits at its throne. Material things? Personal ambition? God?
As Mary teaches us, the way to the cross is selfless. She always put Christ's needs before her own. At the Annunciation, she shows what saying "yes" to God means. For her, it means discarding her own plans of a respectable married life in Nazareth. It meant opening her heart to Him in trust.
For us it means, striving each day to be instruments of God's will. We are all called to play an active role in the redemption of the world. Like Mary, at the foot of her Son's cross, we are to become a partner in the Passion.
This Lent, put Christ's needs before your own. Spend your days in praise of Him and in fruitful service to Him and others. Commit to engage in works of mercy. For example, instead of using your free time to relax, use it to volunteer in your community. Let your sacrifice serve as a gift in response to His gift to us on the cross.
Lastly, contemplate the face of the Lord.
As Scripture tells us, "Beholding the glory of the Lord, we are being changed into His likeness" (2 Cor 3:18).
That's the whole objective of Lent: to gaze upon His face and to imitate His example — to make His instruction and actions our own.
Read scripture daily, if you don't already. Go to daily Mass, if you can.
The more we turn our gaze toward the cross, the more graces we will receive to shoulder our own crosses.
Let these ashes serve to remind us that God is merciful to those who call on Him with contrite hearts. By taking up Christ's cross, by gazing into His face, by imitating His example, may we prepare ourselves for a joy-filled Easter and a grace-abounding Divine Mercy Sunday. And may we begin to live the message of Divine Mercy — loving God and our neighbor — every day of the year.
For we who make that choice, the choice to be "marked" men and women — possessions, slaves, the dust, as God willed us to be — let the arduous journey begin. As the reading on Ash Wednesday states: "Behold, now is the day of salvation!" (2 Cor 6:2).