Ash Wednesday Welcomes

'Repent and believe the Gospel' is the Church’s message today, from her Master

The Church offers two formulae as options to be used during imposition of ashes, the sign of penance. The older formula is “Remember, man, that you are dust and to dust you will return.” The newer one is actually not new at all, because it repeats the first public words spoken by Christ in the Gospel of Mark, which some believe to be the oldest of the Gospels: “Repent and believe the Gospel!”

We hear a lot in the Church today about “welcoming” and “accompanying.” Critics of this focus — including me — have asked how contemporary ecclesiastical “welcoming” and “accompanying” is distinguishable from its secular counterparts, which scrupulously avoid any suggestion of moral judgment. That is not to say that those who present themselves must be morally perfect. They must and certainly are not. The question is not “are they morally perfect?” but “do they want to be?”

The Church welcomes everybody, with no moral test applied to those presenting themselves in the line for ashes. Your primary qualifying criterion, which all of us will meet absent divine intervention, is the ability to decompose, to turn one day into ashes. In that sense, even a non-Catholic can show up in the ashes line today.

Presumably, however, joining today’s queue is not about simple curiosity; you don’t receive ashes because you wonder what having a black splotch in the middle of your forehead is like. Entering that line is a recognition somewhere, deep down, that there is something wrong with you that needs to be righted, something blighted that needs healing. There should be some spiritual motivation, some ember of even inchoate faith God can fire up.

“Repent and believe the Gospel!” is the Church’s welcome message today, the message it takes from its Master. The Church has already made a moral judgment about everybody in that line (including the priest imposing the ashes): they’re sinners. They all need “accompaniment.” That’s what the next forty days are all about. I always liked what my liturgy professor, Fr. John Baldovin, SJ, called it: “ecclesiological solidarity.”

But today’s action also presents an unambiguous message: Repenting means not that the Church changes its faith and morals to accommodate you, but that you change your way of thinking about life to follow those faith and morals. That’s what repentance — metanoia — literally means: “to change one’s way of thinking.” That has always been the Church’s message, to change one’s way of thinking from the norms and mores of the times (whatever times we are talking about) to the norms of Christ and His Church. It is not patient of multiple “interpretations.”

The older formula for Ash Wednesday also reinforces this way of thinking. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return” is a message for everyman. Because death is inevitable — even before Benjamin Franklin repeated that truism — everyman is invited not just to remember he’ll one day be food for worms but, as a result of that consideration, to “repent and believe the Gospel.”

The Church wants to accompany everyman, not just to the grave but beyond it. Her way of doing that is to challenge man to change his way of thinking about life, to “put on Christ.” Not to expect Christ to put on you. And while moral perfection is not prerequisite to that process, it does want to lead to “being perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” through a process of enlightenment that then makes one’s own the truth that good is good, evil is evil, A is one, B the other, and that sin is not in the eye of the beholder.

It’s that welcoming accompaniment with which the Church today begins Lent.


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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