Lenten Ashes: A Testimony to the Power of Grace
COMMENTARY: The ashes of Ash Wednesday are directly connected to the human desire to return to inner integrity.
“Remember, man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
These words comprise one of the formulas used for the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, and they come from the Book of Genesis. They express the end result of the denial of God in the Original Sin as far as the body is concerned: the mystery of death, for death entered the world with sin. This death, though, is not just a lack of physical life. It also has spiritual dimensions, for it also expresses a lack of spiritual life.
Created in the State of Grace
Adam and Eve were created in the state of grace, and they also enjoyed certain special gifts that were beyond nature but not above it. The supernatural gift of grace is actually their personal union with God and their sharing in the life of the Trinity.
There was no sin, yet they did not see God “face-to-face,” an experience that characterizes heaven. They did not need grace to heal them, since there was no sin. But they did need sanctifying grace to persevere in their union with God and merit heaven. This union had marvelous results in their souls.
In their intellects, they had infused knowledge, so that Adam could name the animals on one experience. In their wills, they had loving obedience. This was not the external imposition of some outside arbitrary dictator in the person of God demanding only submission to his will. They enjoyed an almost continuous state of infused contemplation.
They experienced divine intimacy with the Holy Trinity, and so they understood why love of God also entailed obedience to his will. They had spontaneity in their passions so that they really enjoyed doing good.
Though they had passions to resist evil such as hatred, fear and anger, there was no need to use them, since they did not experience evil. In their bodies, they experienced such a union with their engraced souls that, though they had to experience some sort of passage from this world to the next, they would not have experienced illness or a corrupting death.
Their kind of death would merely be a passage from the manner of union the soul experiences with the body in this world and the next.
A Proper Integrity
This wonderful union was man as he should be because it expressed the proper interior integrity that an engraced soul should have, even in relation to the body. The perseverance of Adam and Eve in this condition was not due to their own power, however.
Such a union of divine love and grace depended on their constant attendance and union with God, who loved them into this state. They needed God’s aid to always act as he would wish.
Traditional Catholic theology calls this actual grace, which is the inner inspiration of God enlightening man’s reason and strengthening his will to do good. To show this needed dependence, God gave them one commandment in the Garden:
“You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it, you shall die” (Genesis 2:16-17).
This places boundaries on human freedom of truth. As long as Adam and Eve consulted God and obeyed him from love in every decision, their hearts were free, warm, loving and kind, and so they would persevere in grace. They heard the word “death” without understanding its precise meaning.
At the words of the tempter, they did not consult God, but by an inordinate movement of their wills toward themselves, as though they could persevere in grace on their own, they lost grace and the marvelous gifts God gave them of innocence and integrity. Still, they were not completely depraved.
Their intellects still could know truth, their will had a natural tendency to love, and their passions could be obedient to reason. And even the body could not finally attain the divine purpose if it died forever; without healing grace, man could not go to heaven and certainly could not really experience “being made right.”
Addressing Our Weakness
God did not leave man in this condition. He permitted it to bring forth an even greater grace than the creation of the human race in grace and integrity. By the miracle of miracles, he promised the Redeemer as soon as the sin was committed.
“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15).
The woman’s seed — Christ God made man — bruised the head of Satan in his passion, death and resurrection. Satan bruised his heel in the Passion.
During the season of Lent, the Church presents us with a season to prepare ourselves to celebrate these events with mind and heart renewed. The original innocence of Adam and Eve was primarily a result of interior love, and so the various Lenten practices that Catholics perform are meant to strike them in the heart.
Though we receive back grace in baptism, we do not receive back the marvelous integrity enjoyed by Adam and Eve. In Lent, Catholics are asked to address the weakness of their own egotism that imitates that of Adam and Eve, in order to experience a greater integrity. They are asked to address their hardness of heart and to do the works of our religion from a right intention: the love of Christ.
The punishments for the Original Sin in the loss of this integrity culminate in the punishment of a corrupting death:
“You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
The ashes of Ash Wednesday are directly connected to this desire to return to inner integrity. Ashes were used throughout the Old Testament to symbolize repentance for sin. Even the Ninevites, a fierce pagan nation, repented in sackcloth and ashes at the preaching of Jonah (Jonah 3:5-6). There are many instances. In the early Church, this practice was continually recommended as a sign of the desire for repentance.
The ashes represent the mutability of life that passes; just as ashes are blown away by the wind, the fleeting nature of putting our good in all that is not God, and so the mystery of death, is represented. For the body returns to dust as a result of the Original Sin.
A person who mars his appearance in their use (Catholics are often told they have dirty faces on Ash Wednesday) also shows the desire through grace to rid themselves of the primary result of the Original Sin, the desire to dominate and manipulate others for our own glory and power. Their use then demonstrates something negative, repentance for sin, and something positive, namely the confession that only Christ and his grace can heal us from moral weakness. In this they also encapsulate the other formula used on Ash Wednesday: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”
Dominican Father Brian Mullady is a mission preacher and
adjunct professor at Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.