Lenten Reflections: Ash Wednesday
February 14, 2018
by Marina McCoy, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences
Marina McCoy is an associate professor of philosophy at Boston College, teaching ancient Greek philosophy and in the PULSE program. She is also mom to both a BC alum and a current BC student, and her husband works at BC's McMullen Museum of Art. Her books include Wounded Heroes: Vulnerability as a Virtue in Ancient Greek Philosophy and Literature (Oxford University Press). Marina also volunteers, visiting inmates who form the Lay Dominican community at Norfolk Prison, and writes a monthly column on spirituality for Loyola Press at https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/. She recently did "basic training" in spiritual direction at the BC School of Theology and Ministry as part of her sabbatical.
For your reference - Readings for Ash Wednesday
Psalm 51:3-4, 5-6AB, 12-13, 14, and 17
2 Corinthians 5:20—6:2
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
Love and Ashes
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent, a day in which we express sorrow for our sins and repentance. In Lent, we undertake practices such as fasting, almsgiving, and increased prayer.
Ash Wednesday, however, is not primarily about sin. It’s not primarily about our shortcomings or our failings. Ash Wednesday is primarily about God’s love and looking at our own responsiveness to that love. Lent is a season of preparation for Easter and the celebration of the Resurrection. At Easter, we will celebrate God’s gracious saving power, by which love overcomes hate and division, mercy overcomes sin, and life wins out over death. Lent is a season for growing in our readiness to receive and to share God’s love. The Church gives us the gift of time to get ready.
In the first week of St Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, a person undertaking the retreat reflects on the truth of being a “loved sinner.” For many of us, this phrase might sound a little paradoxical: if I am a sinner, how could God love me? Or if I am lovable, then maybe my sin is not so bad. But God already loves us exactly as we are, right now, before we have repented or “improved.” God loves us in all our gifts and talents, and in all our weakness and brokenness. Today on Ash Wednesday, we are invited to hold these two elements in balance: being a loved sinner, in which the sin is real, but the love of God is always much greater.
As we reflect on our sins, it is helpful to differentiate between sorrow and shame. Shame is the experience of being inadequate or unworthy of love. Shame paralyzes and so does not free us to convert our lives. But in Lent, we are asked to express not shame, but rather sorrow. Sorrow expresses a feeling of deep regret for past actions and genuine sorrow leads us to want to change. God wants us to feel sorrow for our sins. But God is not ashamed of us. Rather, God holds all of our sin in the embrace of love.
When we receive the ashes on our foreheads, a priest may say, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” or “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” Both confirm God’s love and our total dependence on that love. Adam and Eve are told that because of their sins, they will die and return to dust (Gen 3:19). But this is not the only reference to being “dust” in Genesis. According to the creation story, we are also told that we are dust infused by divine breath (Gen 2:7). God as creator animates that dust with God’s own breath, in a moment of intimate self-gift. And God does not remove that divine presence, even after sin. Even now, God continues to breathe us into divine life.
To “repent and believe in the Gospel” literally means to “turn around” and believe in the good news. The good news of the gospel is the truth of the Resurrection. What do we need to do in order to turn around, to glimpse more of the truth of divine love, and to respond to it with our entire lives?
My colleague in theology, Jim Keenan, S.J., offers a definition of sin as a “failure to love.” On Ash Wednesday, we take time to reflect on how and where we have failed to love. But we reflect on our failures to love not under the harsh gaze of a judge, but rather under the kind gaze of a loving parent. When the light of God shines on us, our sins may even have the appearance of darkness from our subjective point of view. But as St. John of the Cross says, we can only see this darkness because of the light of God shining on us in love, a light that makes visible what was beforehand hidden to ourselves. When we know ourselves to be profoundly loved, these elements of ourselves come out of the shadows and into the light of love.
Think of how good moms and dads love their young children, with a boundless love that understands the child’s failures as places for growth and learning. God’s love is even greater than that of the most compassionate mother or most caring father. Lent is not about becoming good so that God will finally love me. It’s about learning to really be responsive to the truth that God loves me and loves every human being—indeed, all of creation—with a love that I have not yet fully grasped. Lent is a season in which I am invited to grow more deeply into what it means for that love to be realized in the every day concreteness of my life.
We can each ask ourselves: this Lent, how do I want to grow in love?
Suggestions for Prayer and Practice:
- Attend Mass and receive ashes. Notice how the penitential reception of ashes is counterbalanced by the gift of Eucharist.
- Imagine God gazing at me in love like a loving parent or Jesus sitting with me as a faithful friend. Where have I been responsive to God’s love and where have I sinned in failing to respond? What does God most want me to see about where I need to grow in love this Lent?
- What practice might help me to grow more in love? What would it mean to undertake this practice without proclaiming it to anyone except God?
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