Summer, Lent and Ashes

This has been a busy season for me – currently writing my thesis. But Lent, as I have grown up with it, incessantly nags to be acknowledged as a period of reflection. When I was a little bit younger Lent’s rituals and general mood was something imposed by the older ones. Now its meaning is something I have to discover on my own. With a big help from our community of course.

My flirtation with other religions, more than a decade back, did not include Lent as something I could readily discard. For whatever reason Lent appeared to me ever more charming the more I distanced myself from it. I did not view Lent as a Catholic tradition from the outside. Having had a Protestant girlfriend still had me within Christian purview. The only non-Christian religion I wandered into was Hinduism. Such a complex religion. I made a many wonderful friendships during my stay there, though I could not say I had assimilated myself totally; for having to worship gods I did not recognize was a bit too far for me to stray into. In retrospect I could not say I did left Catholicism, nor did I view it from the outside. I was pretty into it the rest of my wandering days but only with my one foot at the other side of the fence. I think this made me appreciate Catholic traditions more.

Among others Lent is something I profoundly cherish now. Its gloominess, its dryness, its subdued atmosphere, the summer heat, have become all the more mysterious to me. Ash Wednesday for example which marks the beginning of Lent, for me, is the most surreal of days. Hands down. Everywhere you go you see people with crosses of ash on their foreheads. That mark is a great equalizer. Whether you’re rich or poor, learned or ignorant, beautiful or homely, once you get an ash on your forehead your status becomes just like the rest – a marked man who is going to die just like everyone else. If you have come to think of it, Ash Wednesday is a powerful critique of social values.

Applying ash on the body is also done by Hindus, usually by their “holy men” called sadhus. Some go naked, some wear loincloths, but strewn with ashes on their bodies. To the envy of some, they smoke hashish for religious purposes. But generally ash is usually associated with the sadhus. On the other side of the world, we are quite familiar with the Jews who wear sackcloth and ashes. King David for example wore sackcloth and covered himself in ashes as a sign of mourning. For some occasions Jewish people of old covered themselves in ashes as a sign of repentance. I don’t know if modern Jews continue this practice but we know it is something ingrained in their culture.

Ash Wednesday (which marks the beginning of Lent) pretty much share with the meaning of sadhu’s practice of covering himself in ash. That is, it professes asceticism. Austerity forces us to look into the basics of life. In the Jewish tradition to which we are closer, it not only carries the meaning of asceticism, but also of mourning for the death of a beloved and collective repentance for the sins of the community. Great religious traditions have used ash as a manifestation of asceticism, mourning and repentance. As Catholics we continue this as a powerful reminder not only of our life, death and the hardships of living a very human existence, but also of Christ who lived like us – only that He did not sin.

At some point in my life, I confess, I hated Lent because it’s so dry. Totally uneventful. But now I kind of appreciate it more. Now I understand why our ancestors, are more observant of Lent. Among other things it gives them some kind of rest. This is marked by the absence of “events.” All year long we clutter our lives with schedules and deadlines and the creation of “events.” Yes, we create events, be it parties, commemorations, celebrations – all artifices to make life “eventful.” Lent subdues these man-made events and strips us naked of these.

Lent is somehow telling us, “I’ll give everyone of you forty days to think over your life without these seemingly exciting extravagant events you create whole year round. Now, do you still find your life meaningful? If you confront the reality of your death and live life simply, does life appeal to you still?” I think these are questions that Lent puts upfront. Questions we try to drown all year long.

Together with the sun, the heat and dusty air, Lent renews the way we look at the world, our life and our Lord. It affords us a realistic look on life. Have a meaningful Lent.


Maundy Thursday, 2016


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