Wednesday, 13 February 2013

A Clean Sweep: Ash Wednesday

Each year at midnight, the hour which begins Ash Wednesday, this is the scene in the French Quarter.   Behind the last of the parades and revelers comes mounted policemen who line up across the entire street to sweep the crowds away.   They are followed by clean-up crews and street-sweepers so that by the time the sun casts her first rays on the Crescent City on Ash Wednesday, all but the smallest signs of the season's excess and sometimes, debauchery, have disappeared.

There's something so hopeful, so decent about this physical, concrete image.   Even in a city that prides itself on good times, there is still some respect and some solemnity left.   How many more tourist dollars could they bring in if they just allowed the party to continue?   Maybe turn the French Quarter into an amusement park where it's Mardi Gras all year?   But no, the streets are swept and the party people are sent home to assess their damages, regroup, and move ahead through the rest of their year.   Ash Wednesday still holds some draw on people so that our churches are packed with daily communicants standing alongside people who may not have been to mass since the previous Ash Wednesday or those who aren't even Catholic.   I've listened to several Ash Wednesday homilies where digs were incorporated about people coming on Ash Wednesday when they don't come the rest of the year.   Maybe the line between habit/superstition and mystery is blurred to our feeble earthly eyes.   Maybe this is one of those things beyond our explanation that we should revere and see as an opportunity to share the love of Christ.   Maybe in criticism, our focus on Christ is blurred as we focus on ourselves and what we believe to be our superiority because we are at mass every Sunday.   Maybe that effort to get there-- to get that physical mark-- has a desperate beauty in it that we miss.  There is beauty in the desperation of Zacchaeus from his treetop perch and in Mary Magadalene's tresses soaked to anoint the feet of her saviour.   Through the gospels, Christ gives us the example of how to meet people in their curiosity and desperation and to recognize our own desperate need.  

Last night, after the children were allowed to attack our Mardi Gras mantle and parade around the living room in their masks and beads, I did our own sweep.   The happy, gaudy decorations of the season were packed away and visual reminders of Lent took their place.   I'm a visual person and these items help remind me each time I glance in their direction.  It's a reminder not that the fun's over, but that our focus must be regained.   If we are open to the fun of the party, the celebration of the miracles and the entrance into Jerusalem, then we have to also be fully open to the sorrow of the betrayal, the trial and the crucifixion.   Close your heart to sorrow and you're closed to the full experience of joy.

 The impact on the children and our family mood when yesterday we saw this:

only to wake up the next morning to this was huge.

The museum poster, a detail from deVinci's painting of Saint Anne, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Infant Jesus, is a reminder to follow these two saints and keep my gaze fixed lovingly on Christ.

 So, this morning, this bright and beautiful Wednesday, we look forward to a season of forty days to spiritually clean up our act.   Let us rise up, begin the work of sweeping the darkness and sin from our hearts in order to tend to the Kingdom of God.   It's time for us to assess our damaged selves, regroup with the sacraments, penance, and fasting, and make our way through the beauties of the rest of our Church year.

From Prayer for the Morning in Magnificat:

"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." (Distribution of ashes)

"During Lent, let us spend the gift of time seeking wisdom of heart taught by self-sacrifice, so that, dead to sin, we may rise to new life in Christ in whom death has died."

Entrance antiphon at Mass:

"You are merciful to all, O Lord,
and despise nothing that you have made.
You overlook people's sins, to bring them to repentance,
and you spare them, for you are the Lord our God."

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