Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Ash Wednesday.

A bit like the young Henry Adams, I've been known to attend church twice on Sunday. Perhaps it is fitting that I would do the same on a day such as Ash Wednesday. Though Ash Wednesday is not canonically recognized as a holy day of obligation, many Roman Catholics feel both a desire and obligation to mark the start of their Lenten pilgrimage by attending Mass today. Ash Wednesday is also a day on which Catholics bear witness to their faith in a poignant and profound way, bearing on their foreheads a mark of their status as loved and redeemed sinners. I was obliged to attend Mass today not merely by faith or desire, but by responsibilities to the school in which I work and the community in which I live - it was out of loyalty to both that I ended up attending two Ash Wednesday liturgies.

This morning, the students, faculty and staff of St. Ignatius College Prep observed Ash Wednesday with an all-school Mass at Holy Family Church, a Victorian Gothic gem next door to the school. As I did last year in another locale, I helped distribute ashes at the school liturgy. Again and again I rubbed my right thumb in a bowl of ashes and made the sign of the cross on the foreheads of a procession of students and faculty, some of whom I knew fairly well, some of whom I knew simply by name, and others I knew not at all. Each time, I recited the familiar and consoling yet still rather jarring words, "Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return." As I did this, I thought of the Meditation on the Incarnation in the Spiritual Exercises, in which Saint Ignatius invites the exercitant to imagine the three persons of the Trinity looking down upon the mass of human beings "in all their diversity of dress and appearance, some white and some black, some in peace and others at war, some weeping and others laughing, some healthy, others sick . . ." Granted, the crowd before me at Holy Family didn't exactly match Ignatius' description; this being a dress-up day (ties for boys, skirts for girls), there was less diversity in student attire than might be seen otherwise, and given the preponderance of students the group was much less diverse in age than Ignatius' meditation would have us imagine. Nonetheless, I could see the reality of Christ's Incarnation and Redemption in the face of every person who came before me. I could see that each person before me was a unique individual made in the image and likeness of God, and I could see that God came into the world for the sake of each and every one of them. By attending this Ash Wednesday liturgy and choosing to be marked with ashes, every student and teacher before me acknowledged - some more consciously than others, no doubt - both their own need for a redeemer and their need to live up to their identity as redeemed sinners. None of these thoughts are terribly new, but my experiences at this morning's liturgy brought them back to me in a particularly vivid way.

The second Ash Wednesday Mass I attended was a late-afternoon liturgy at the Jesuit residence in which I live. Though we celebrate Mass as a community every Wednesday afternoon, it seems particularly apt that we should do so on a day such as this one. Five of the eleven Jesuits in our community work at St. Ignatius and were present at the all-school Mass at Holy Family earlier in the day, but the other six men who live here and work in diverse ministries (hospital chaplaincy, parish ministry and community service) were not. In many cases, the Jesuits who weren't at today's school Mass celebrated Ash Wednesday liturgies in the different places in which they work. To be a Jesuit today, as our 32nd General Congregation reminded us, "is to know that one is a sinner, yet called to be a Companion of Jesus as Ignatius was." Thus it is highly appropriate that, after observing Ash Wednesday with their larger communities to which we belong, that members of a particular Jesuit community should come together as brothers and friends in the Lord to acknowledge our own sinfulness and need for redemption. This afternoon's community liturgy at St. Ignatius was as simple as the morning Mass at Holy Family was elaborate. We had no music and a very short homily, and in a place of a complex, carefully diagrammed plan for the distribution of communion we had only a single paten and chalice passed among ourselves. We came together not as a diverse group of students and educators but as a small group of celibate, white and mostly gray-haired men. As professional Christians, all but one of whom having made public vows of poverty, chastity and obedience (and that one hopes to profess said vows in August), we spend much of our time seeking to bring God's saving love to others. Coming together to pray as a community, we remind ourselves that we also stand in need of God's mercy and forgiveness. This thought, like the ones that came to me this morning at Holy Family, is not terribly new. Nonetheless, it stands as a salutary reminder of what Ash Wednesday is all about. AMDG.


At February 25, 2007 9:15 PM, Blogger smpitts said...

The challenge for us on Ash Wednesday, as for all holy days, is to not let the additional responsibility that the holy day brings for us impair our spirit of prayer.

I was dreading Ash Wednesday because we had to give ashes at the hospital, the juvenile detention center, and the parish, but it ended up being, like yours, a very rewarding experience. The best part was feeling like a missionary wandering around an administration building for the hospital and giving people ashes right in the middle of their lives. Props for the reference to the meditation on the Incarnation!

Stephen, nSJ

At February 26, 2007 10:08 AM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Thanks for your comments - I think you're absolutely right about the challenge of remaining in a prayerful spirit in the midst of ministerial responsibilities on days like Ash Wednesday.

Hope the novitiate is going well for you - please know of my prayers for you and the other novices. Pax,

Joe K sj


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