The Reverend Kyle L. Doustou
February 18, 2015
A year ago they were shipped to Caribou in large burlap sacks. Harvested from a farm in south Texas, they arrived lush and bright. Some came as large, majestic fans…others as small cut strips. We bedecked the sanctuary with them and in a burst of exultant praise, we waved them about as we sang Hosanna to the Son of David! They were sprinkled with holy water, showered with God’s grace just as they had been showered by the tropical rains, and then we brought them home…placing them behind our crucifixes and religious pictures. But it did not take long them for them to lose their lushness. The moisture left them and they dried out, going from a brilliant green to a pale yellow. What had once been a great symbol of victory, triumph, and peace quickly became a shriveled up sign of our own mortality. And now, having been thrown into the fire, they have been reduced to dust…to ash. Sic transit gloria mundi…thus passes the glory of the world.
Last year’s palm branches have become this year’s ashes…in the words of King David in the Second Book of Samuel: “how the mighty have fallen.” How great and haughty was the palm branch on that glorious day, when Christ was welcomed into Jerusalem as a king. Regal and splendid in form, the people chose it over other plants to hail Him. It was raised high for all to see; the envy of the surrounding fauna. But despite its moment of splendor, what had been raised up would be cast down. The palm would be laid on the ground to be trampled underfoot and then left to rot. It had been plucked from its tree, its life source, all for a moment’s glory…and while the other, lesser plants continued to grow and flourish, the palm’s life was over. What a timely and poignant symbol of the fate that awaits us all. Though we accomplish mighty and wonderful things…though we attain great beauty and advance in much wisdom…though we be lauded and praised by others and held up in esteem before all…though we become all things to all people, we, like the palm branch, are but dust – and to dust we shall return.
|"Remember, man, that you are dust and to dust you shall return."|
Today is Ash Wednesday…a day when Catholics from all over the world flock to their churches to receive the imposition of blessed ashes on their heads as a sign and symbol of their faith in Christ and their intention to enter into Lent with a penitential spirit. It is an act steeped in thousands of years of history…from the early days of the Old Testament people imposed ashes on themselves as a symbol of their grief and sorrow for sin and in the early centuries of the Christendom ashes were imposed on penitents prior to receiving the Sacrament of Penance. This practice continues in our own time, on the day when the Church enters into the penitential season of Lent. We don ashes for the day, recognizing that we are indeed sinners, and reminding ourselves that the wage for our sin is death. The deathly remains of last year’s palm branches are smeared on our heads and we face our own mortality as we hear it said, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Such an external sign of penance, however, brings with it the danger of using it for an ulterior purpose. In the time of Jesus, the falsely humble, the hypocrites, would engage in austere penitential practices like the donning of ashes in order to draw attention to themselves and to project the appearance of a truly religious spirit. Our Lord condemns this mentality in our Gospel today, and He sternly warns us against it. In receiving ashes today, we should not accept them as an opportunity to display our religiosity or to give the appearance of humility…we should accept them as a sign of what we are. We are the palm branch, so eager to make something great of ourselves, but really nothing more than ash.
But there’s a greater mystery occurring on this Ash Wednesday…a mystery that is greater than our own sinfulness and our own mortality. These ashes we receive, the sign of death that they are, will be smeared on our foreheads in the form of a cross. Through His own suffering, through His own death, through His Cross, Christ our Lord brings life to what was dead. We, like the palm branch, may be dust and ash, shriveling up under the weight of our own sin, but by clinging to Christ and seeking refuge in His Cross, He promises to us the gift of immortality…life in the celestial kingdom of heaven.
For the next forty days we will be engaging in acts of penance, particularly marked by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. As we muddle our way through Lent, there will be ups and downs…successes and failures in each of these areas. Don’t get too bogged down trying to have a “good Lent.” Just remember the ashes from today…remember who you are and, more importantly, who can you become through the power of the Cross. If the ashes don’t call you to deeper life in Christ, then they’re nothing more than the remains of last year’s palm branches. But if you heed their call and turn to Christ with all your heart, then they can be the sign of the beginning of your life, not the symbol of its end.