“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10)
By Jerry Creedon
We are about to set out on our Lenten journey. We do so bedaubed with ashes,
an age-old symbol of repentance,
humility of heart, our lowly estate before God, and the grim reality of our mortal nature. The ashes rubbed on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday are the burned remains of the palms we waved at the celebration of Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday last year. The spirit of penance that pervades Ash Wednesday is thus, paradoxically, an echo of the elation we experienced at the end of our Lenten journey a year ago. We step into our Lenten pilgrimage with the sign on our foreheads of dreams undreamt, maybe even of love grown cold. This moves us to repentance. And, as St. Mark tells us early in his gospel, repentance is the first thing Jesus asks of those who would follow him (Mark 1:15). But, if God requires repentance, he responds graciously to all who repent: “A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17).
Ashes, however, are not only a symbol of broken-heartedness, they can also be a symbol of newness and hope.
In the Irish language one of the words for ashes is gríosach. Gríosach is the hot ashes from the fire that burned on the hearth all day. At night it is heaped on the still glowing embers of that fire, keeping it alive until morning. Yesterday’s ashes rekindle today’s fire. In Pope Francis’ Lenten Message for 2018, the Holy Father tells us: “I will take my cue from the words of Jesus in Matthew: ‘Because of the increase of iniquity, the love of many will grow cold”’ (Mt. 24:12). Ash Wednesday’s ashes can be the gríosach that will keep love warm, burning in our hearts.
Lent is surely a time when we are called, in those ageless words of the prophet Micah, to “walk humbly with God.”
What an awesome thought, God inviting us to come for a walk! As we walk, we discover that our companion is the God who “gives us a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit” (Isaiah 61:3). We feel a lightness in our step as we walk along. No wonder, because our companion on the way is the God who “lets the bones he has crushed jump up and dance” (Psalm 51:8).
When we walk humbly with God, we are aware of the others
walking with us. So we listen to their voices, to their stories, their hopes, joys and fears. We are, perhaps, moved to sadness by some of those stories or, worse still, to cynicism. Why is the God walking by our side not doing something about the world’s pain? Then, suddenly, we hear singing. And we realise that the singer is God. We should not be surprised, of course. Didn’t the prophet Zephaniah, who lived in hard times, hear that singing too? He tells us of that rapturous experience: “The Lord, your God, is in your midst, he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love, he will exult over you with loud singing,
as on a day of festival” (3:17).
So, our Lenten journey becomes a heavenly sing-along. A time of renewal,
when ashes are turned into garlands, anger into love, and sadness into song. At the end of our Lenten journey, we will gather round the Easter fire, rekindled from the gríosach of the year’s joys and sorrows, ups and downs, successes and failures, moments of glory and sloughs of despond, and the first thing we see are the faces of those around the fire, no longer clouded by ashes, but aglow with the light of the Risen Christ.
Grant, we pray, O Lord,
that, as we pass from old to new,
so, with former ways left behind,
we may be renewed in holiness of mind.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen. (Prayer After Communion for the Fourth Week of Lent).