By BISHOP ROBERT BAKER
The symbols we use in life tell us a lot about ourselves, what we value in life, on what we rely for hope and happiness.
Today a symbol will be placed on our foreheads as we begin the holy season of Lent — the symbol of ashes.
A week and a half ago I was with a pilgrimage group from the diocese in Assisi, Italy. In that very town in the 13th century a man by the name of Francesco Bernardone, now known as St. Francis of Assisi, presented an interesting symbolic gesture in front of the Cathedral of San Ruffino in Assisi.
He took off all his clothes. For Francis this was not meant as a gesture of immoral behavior, but rather a symbol of rejecting material possessions and his own personal wealth that came from his family. It was a gesture that resulted in the scorn of his father and the respect of a large group of people who understood what he was trying to say and followed him into the mendicant way of life.
In that same town of Assisi a week before we were there, the Holy Father was present to offer a symbolic gesture of unity and peace as he gathered with religious leaders of other faiths, Greek Orthodox, Hindu, Moslem, Jewish and various Protestant communities.
The Holy Father’s peace initiative was well received by those who participated.
The rabbi among them left his prepared text to ask others to repeat after him words such as these: “Pope John Paul II, you are an ambassador of peace in our world!”
Not only did that rabbi, but many other people throughout the world see our Holy Father as a great symbol of unity and peace in a sorely divided world. What a beautiful symbolic gesture of unity, peace, and hope he has given to us and he has been for us!”
The Hindu leaders who spoke at this gathering had an interesting observation about the meaning of religion. He said that religion, “if properly understood, is that driving force that can restore harmony and holism between the inner and the external world.” That, of course, is what the Holy Father had in mind for the symbolic gesture he was making in Assisi. That is what our Catholic religious symbols attempt to do for us, especially our Lenten symbols like the ashes we will receive. They are means for God’s grace to restore harmony and holism between our inner spirit, our soul, and our external actions and activities.
When the ashes are placed on your forehead, there is a choice of wording that can be used: either “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel” or “Remember, you are dust and to dust you will return.”
The ashes remind us that Lent is the church’s occasion for our being wrenched away from sin and evil and brought back to God. The ashes remind us that we are continuously grappling with evil, evil in the world around us, evil in ourselves, and that evil we call the devil. The ashes help us examine our own spirit and admit that all is not well within us, that we are broken by sin, but these same ashes also remind us that God welcomes back anyone whose heart is broken and contrite. Ashes are a sign of our alienation from God, but also of our desire to turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.
Ashes also symbolically call us to remember we are fragile, mortal human beings; we are dust and unto dust we shall return. Our days in this world are limited. Our time is sacred. Each moment is precious. We are on a spiritual journey, a pilgrimage to eternity. Ben Franklin once wrote, “Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that’s the stuff life is made of.” In a burial place for Capuchin friars we visited while in Rome at one of the churches, there was an epithet that said, “Where you are now we once were; where we are now, you will be.” Ashes are a sign of our mortality and of our need to live with one eye on eternity.
There are other symbols besides ashes to remind us of our alienation from God and our need to turn back to him, as well as our mortality, symbols that link the outer world and the inner spirit through conversion of mind and heart to God, symbols like prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and charity. May all of these Lenten symbols help us on our spiritual pilgrimage to God so that after Lent is over we will have grappled with evil and come out victorious, experiencing in a fuller way the presence of God in our lives.
Bishop Robert J. Baker gave this homily on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 13.