Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation. Even so, chances are that at your parish and mine, Mass will be jam-packed. Maybe there’s something about “You are dust and to dust you shall return” that speaks to people in a way that a Mass in Ordinary Time does not.
And yet last Ash Wednesday I observed a curious sight: people were leaving early. Not after communion, mind you, but after the ashes. As they departed, their foreheads blackened, I watched with a mixture of sympathy and wonder: they had lined up for the fast, but they left before the feast.
I recall Pope Francis’s words in Evangelii Gaudium: “There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter.” I confess I am feeling more and more like one of them myself. We are worn thin after years of a pandemic, mass shootings, violent political divisions, unending racism, and so much more. The rhythmic sledgehammer of a news cycle shreds any sense of enduring equanimity or hopeful idealism to which we once clung. Rarely anymore do I hear people say “everything happens for a reason” or “it will all work out in the end.” Those are platitudes for a simpler time.
To be clear, I do believe everything will work out in the end—just not at the end of the next election cycle or outbreak (of violence or COVID). Because the end we are talking about is God’s and not ours. God, who is the source of all life and the end to which all life flows, calls us out of nothingness and into nothing less than a full share in the divine life. We humble humans (yes, all of us) are meant for full communion and reunion, for bliss beyond measure, for joy without end. And that’s the feast: God’s offering of Godself to us, freely and prodigally.
And isn’t this the mystery of the cross? The most horrendous thing to ever to happen does not end in horror. The incarnate God is crucified and hung to die in misery and humiliation, but he is utterly triumphant, invincible, resurrected. Like the chiaroscuro in a Caravaggio painting—like St. Maximilian Kolbe in the death chamber, like Dorothy Day in the slums, like St. Oscar Romero in the civil war—the darkness makes the light that much brighter, that much more invincible a witness.
The cross is where the unstoppable goodness of God collides with the unbearable brutality of life. But we often forget the feasts that precede and follow: The feast of the Kingdom proclaimed by Christ and witnessed to in his healing, teaching, truth-telling, and forgiving. The feast of the Kingdom still coming, the eternal banquet of divine union prepared for us.
At the center, there stands the Living One—Christ, crucified in every victim of violence in our cruel and broken world. Christ, shining through your eyes and mine, calling us to heal, to reconcile, to witness, to be light.
The fast is here. The feast is coming. Don’t leave early.
Michael Sanem, from the February 2023 issue of Give Us This Day, http://www.giveusthisday.org (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2023). Used with permission.