Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday Reflection 2012

Today is Day 1 of Lent. Also known as Ash Wednesday, it marks the remembrance of Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness. A Regent alum has posted her reflection from Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun who has written many profound articles on spirituality. I find her thoughts simple and helpful. It goes to the very essence of being human.

I have always wondered why people call this day 'Ash Wednesday.' Two years ago, I reflected on this day with the focus on 'Giving Up.' This year, I want to focus on the word 'ash.' After Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden, The LORD God pronounced this on Adam:
"By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return." (Gen 3:19)
It is a plain pronouncement that no matter what Adam does, death represents his end state. Adam and Eve have become mortal beings. One fact of life is this: We all age. We all grow old. Our bodies will diminish and perish eventually. It is part of becoming ash. I want to provide three short reflections on the symbolism of ash: Aging, Spirituality, Holiness.

A) Aging
Henri Frederic Amiel, a 19th Century Swiss philosopher writes about the process of growing old.

"To know how to grow old is the master work of wisdom and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living."

Many of us know how to accumulate things, qualifications,  work experiences, and all kinds of worldly ribbons of achievement. When we come to a point in which we are no longer fast enough, strong enough, or agile enough, we become lost. We get depressed. We detest life. The fact is this. Those of us who 'retire' at an old age, why should we simply stop living simply because of the dreaded word, 'retire?' Learn to see it as 're-tire,' like changing our vehicle's tires to Winter tires when Winter arrives, normal tires for Summer, and All-Season tires if we are living in places where the weather does not change drastically over the year? Aging is not about being boxed into a stereotype. Aging is about seeing God renewing our spirits new every morning, every day, and at every age. Reflect upon on own age. Do not despise the number of wrinkles, or to lament the good old years. Instead, knowing that we will eventually return to dust does not mean we stop living altogether. I like how Joan Chittister writes about adjustment to aging.

"A blessing of these years is being able to live so open-heartedly, and to adjust so well, that others can look to us and see what being old can bring in terms of life, of holiness, of goodness to make the world new again." (Joan Chittister, The Gift of Years, New York, NY: Bluebridge, 2008, 65)
Let this Ash Wednesday be a time to pray for those of us who feel the weight of aging. Pray for those who are fearing the coming of the ash destiny. Nearing ash ourselves does not mean to stop living. It simply means we live differently.

B) Spirituality

One of my friends once said of the great paradox. Spiritual things and physical things often operate in a strange paradox. For example, the world thinks that more is better. The spiritual person believes that less is more. The world lives as if money can buy anything. The spiritual man understands that money cannot buy everything. All the world's medical know-how seeks to extend longevity at great costs. The spiritual person knows when it is time to live, and when it is time to go.  The world holds on to life with a clenched fist. The spiritual man lives with open hands that freely receive, and also freely give.

The great spiritual mystic, Sadhu Sundar Singh tells of this natural encounter with deep spiritual understanding. One day, he happens to chance upon a nest of young chicks. Even though they have yet to open their eyes, each time the mother bird flutters near, they will chirp excitedly. Even though they have not know whether there is good food or not, their mouths automatically open in expectation of being fed. Maybe it is a prey coming to eat them up. Maybe it is some bad person trying to feed them poison. Yet, the natural instinct of such birds is to exercise faith to be given what they need.

Sometimes, as Christians, we live so much in this world that we have forgotten how to live as spiritual beings. We are so used to worldly wisdom that we find it hard to understand spiritual wisdom. Perhaps, as we learn to refrain, to resist more of the world, we can be more discerning of the things of the Spirit.

C) Holiness

We do not operate on the basis of an aimless life. Whatever we do, it is better to have some sense of direction. On Ash Wednesday, we do not fast for the sake of fasting. Neither do we restrict ourselves from things for the sake of restriction. We can become worldly even under the guise of practicing spirituality. Our aim must be holiness of heart, mind, and soul. The operative word is 'purity.' The Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard words are:

"Purity of heart is to will one thing."

Perhaps, this is the biggest reason for Lent. It is not the fasting or the abstinence of things. It is the focus of one's soul, just like the way an archer aims his arrow at the target. Whether it is the blowing of the winds, the sounds of background noises, the eagle in the sky, the archer musters up all his strength and concentration to do one thing: Hit the target.

Let holiness be our aim.

So this is it. For Ash Wednesday. Age beautifully with a renewed sense of energy. Practice spirituality, not as the world teaches, but the way Jesus guides us. Maintain our pursuit of holiness as our one goal for Lent.

Finally, returning to the ash symbolism, we know that we will become dust and ash one day. We know that we will eventually die. If that is the case, before that happens, live well. Live with energy. Live purposefully. May we be the best ash that we can be.

"A blessing of these years is to have the time to complete in ourselves what has been neglected all these years, so that the legacy we leave to others is equal to the full potential within us." (Joan Chittister)


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