Redemptorists of Australia and New Zealand

Australia, New Zealand and Samoa

Province of Oceania

Bringing Good News to the World

Ash Wednesday

Kevin O'Sea

Lent has come along again. A lot us get a feeling, on Ash Wednesday each year, that we ought to pull our socks up, and do the right thing by the rules and the commandments, or at least try to, once again. The key idea in our heads is conformity to the expectations that people (civilisation, church, community, family) put on us. Then we will be good and thought to be good by others.

In the texts for Ash Wednesday, especially in the gospel today, from Matthew, Jesus says: don’t do that. Don’t let those practices rule you. It’s too little. It’s too superficial. You don’t get anywhere by keeping rules like that. Watch yourself – you might find yourself tempted to do things like that!
Jesus actually goes a lot further than that. Lent, is it? He says, wash, use perfume, no long face please, drink up, have something to eat. God isn’t a God of dirty people with stomach cramps. Most people who come to church on Ash Wednesday would be shocked to hear anyone say that. They never read Matthew’s gospel, the selection for today. They never listened to what Jesus said. Please don’t look gloomy. He has risen!

So – what is it all about?

It’s about realizing the implications of his resurrection for you. It’s about realizing the freedom God has planted in you. It’s about realizing that God loves you outright, whether you are a good or bad boy or good or bad girl by the book. And God, each Lent, doesn’t even look at the book. I think I could say that God puts the book away every Ash Wednesday and tells everyone not to dare read it for the whole time of Lent and beyond. You don’t need a book. You need God. And you’ve already Got God! Or better, God’s got you. In a given love that lasts. You’ve got a God who raises everyone from the dead…

I like to imagine the holy women who went in darkness to the empty tomb of Jesus, as on their way to an Ash Wednesday ceremony. In a way, they thought they were. They thought Jesus had become ‘dust and ashes’. And in no time, when they got there, they got the biggest shock in religious history. He was there, he was alive, he was saying to them, get rid of all that silly anointing stuff, come with me and live, and all we need is one marvellous celebration. When you receive the Eucharist on Ash Wednesday, you don’t get ashes from a dead Christ. You get the living body of the risen Jesus.

When you receive the Eucharist on Ash Wednesday, you don’t get ashes from a dead Christ. You get the living body of the risen Jesus.

Sometimes I wonder what Lent would be like if Jesus had not risen from the dead. I wonder what it would be like if the end result depended on how much effort we put into Lent. Do we realize that God has given us the end result already, and that it is already ours by God’s gift, and that we don’t have to do anything, or exert ourselves in anyway, to get it? If we really believe in the implications of resurrection, we can’t possible ‘do’ Lent in the ‘old’ way. All we can do is start appreciating resurrection…

Suppose we could, as a thought experiment, do Lent backwards. Suppose, instead of Ash Wednesday, we started with Easter Sunday. [How about ‘Easter Wednesday’!] Suppose we then thought what we would have liked to have done to make ourselves ready for our share in Jesus’ resurrection. It would be like a reverse Easter vigil, not for one night, but for 40 nights. Backwards.

We could do better than that. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and where there has been fire, there’s ash. Let’s think of the fire at Pentecost: maybe Ash today is the leftover of the fire of our last Pentecost. Maybe the ash in us, yes, in us, is the proof that the Spirit did come and did something to us, and yes, in us. It’s proof that we did have a Pentecost. This is something more wonderful than Moses’ burning bush: that bush was not consumed and it left no ash at all! Is Lent penance etc or is it the dawn of Easter? Or, better, is it a reminder that we are still Pentecost people? I don’t see Lent as a pre-Easter preparation time. I see it as a post-resurrection-of-Jesus and post-Pentecost gratitude time.

Maybe Lent is a link time between one Pentecost and the next. We need to ‘do’ Easter again, in between! Easter is resurrection, it is the conquest of death, the beginning of new life. To be a new Christian is to live a new life. Leave the shrouds in the empty tomb… live now, not in forty days time, as Easter people.

Easter and Pentecost have a lot to do with Christian Initiation, with baptism and with the gift of the Spirit. You become a new Christian with baptism. From the earliest times, newcomers into the Christian community were baptised at Easter. They were given the sacraments of Christian initiation (baptism, anointing, Eucharist) at that time. The whole group of Christians present at the Easter Vigil renews their baptismal promises. Today it would be good to recall what they are!

Lent is old English for spring. Not gloomy. In the northern hemisphere, where it all started, the trees are not detaching themselves from their leaves. They are almost in bud, ready for new flowers.
When I begin Lent, I think of the Jordan river. It’s where Jesus was baptized. It links the Dead Sea in the south with the Lake of Galilee in the north. Which way am I going to travel on the Jordan? Down to the Dead Sea or up to the Galilee?

Lent is usually said to be the preparation time for Easter and Pentecost, and so it is seen as the preparation time for baptism and confirmation or their renewal. I like to remind myself that it is really the consequence of Easter and Pentecost, resurrection and inspiriting having happened for us already.
If Easter and Pentecost hadn’t happened, if they are not still the main thing in our lives, we wouldn’t be having Lent.

Lent is old English for spring. Not gloomy. In the northern hemisphere, where it all started, the trees are not detaching themselves from their leaves. They are almost in bud, ready for new flowers.
When I begin Lent, I think of the Jordan river. It’s where Jesus was baptized. It links the Dead Sea in the south with the Lake of Galilee in the north. Which way am I going to travel on the Jordan? Down to the Dead Sea or up to the Galilee?