Wednesday, 10 February 2016

All are mortal

Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, takes its name from the brief ceremony during the Eucharist of the day in which worshippers are marked on the forehead with ash, prepared traditionally by burning palm leaf crosses retained from last year's Palm Sunday Eucharist. 

"Remember that you are but dust. From dust you came and to dust you will return." says the priest to each person, quoting Genesis 3:19. The story of the Fall gives an account of all the world's woes and misfortunes as an outcome of the disobedience of the primal couple Adam and Eve. They are told "You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die." (Genesis 2:17)

Before acquiring knowledge, the couple are innocently unconscious of the passage of time and that endings follow beginnings. The moment comes when they learn they are creatures, made of the same basic material as everything else in the universe and sharing the same ultimate destiny. Only God is over and beyond the material universe, not dependent upon it to exist, free of all material contraints. Human beings play at pretending there are no limits, but even if ageing can be deferred a while, mortality cannot be escaped and must be reckoned with.

The primal couple feel shame at being found out in defiance of their creator, and experience vulnerability and fear at the unknown prospect of death. These feelings are part of passing from infancy to adulthood shared by humankind. They can act as driving forces for human action, for good or for ill.

The Lenten journey is taken in the light of divine forgiveness. It can enable us to deal with the painful sense of shame, vulnerability and mortal fear, not by avoidance, but by learning what they have to tell us about ourselves in relation to God.

The imposition of ashes challenges any illusions we may have about our human capabilities, but it is not the final word. Rather it is the first serious word in the process of coming to our senses and responding to God's appeal to return to him. Sure, humans are not immortal, but being reconciled to God opens a way to life in and with him that is abundant and eternal, which mortality cannot take away. 'Turn from your sin and be reconciled with God' is the appeal to conscience and free spirit accompanying this reminder of mortality.

Two of the three readings in the Liturgy of this day remind us that we are not playing a game with God, by asking for forgiveness after expressing sorrow for the offence we have given others, unless we change our ways, and renounce the attitudes and actions that lead us into sin. We cannot do this unaided. Admitting our need to God in penitential prayer invites him to heal us from the inner depths of our being.

We can make the words of scripture our own in crying for help. Repeated slowly, often, and with feeling, they can anchor us in humility as we reach out and seek the source of our being.

'O God make speed to save us, O Lord make haste to help us' (Psalm 40:13)
'Make me a clean heart O God, and renew a right spirit within me' (Psalm 51:10)
'God have mercy upon me a sinner(Luke 8:13)
'Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief' (Mark 9:24)
'Lord to whom shall we go, you have the words of eternal life' (John 6:68)

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