We are just a few days away from what I think is one of the greatest days of evangelization in the Catholic Church: Ash Wednesday. While not a holy day of obligation, this is the perfect start to the Lenten season, and an opportunity for the outward sign of the ashes on your forehead to draw people into the truth that the Church provides for us.
Every person desires the direction and asceticism given to us through Lent because every person desires true freedom. The ashes that we will receive speak of that desire for freedom and what such a desire requires.
A few years ago, one of our favorite spiritual writers was leading a retreat about seven hours away from us. An ad for the event popped up on my computer screen, and it just so happened to be the following day. I texted my husband, “This is tomorrow . . . let’s go!” Our boys stayed behind with the grandparents and our youngest was about eight months old, so she came along.
The next morning, we were able to hear and see Fr. Jacques Philippe in person while he offered a one-day retreat. He told the most beautiful and poignant story as an illustration on freedom. Being from France, Fr. Jacques visits the US for speaking engagements, and on one of those visits, he went to the nearest grocery store for some yogurt. As he stood in the yogurt aisle, he was overwhelmed with the many options before him—Greek, regular, non-fat, fruit at the bottom, etc. He inevitably couldn’t decide and walked to a different store with fewer options. He mused that this is exactly what “freedom” is to the world: a plethora of choices. But this often robs us of the ability to choose, leading us to a sort of “analysis paralysis” or even worse, choosing for the sake of choosing without any real discernment or consideration of the decision at hand.
Instead, St. John Paul II says this: “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” What does that mean? It means that true freedom, when grounded in the truth of Christ, allows us to exercise choice through the good, fully discovering oneself and inevitably transcending oneself toward that which is our deepest desire, union with God.
What keeps us from right choice? While the form of the world’s distractions is as different as each person, I firmly believe that the same questions lie at the core of each distraction.
The enemy answers each of these questions with a resounding no and offers quick and temporal fillers for the God we seek and the belovedness that is meant to be ours. Belief in God as Messiah, Savior, and Father—and belief that he loves and desires us—requires a deep reorientation, which necessitates a suffering that many are not willing to undergo. That suffering is found in letting go of the things that we’ve allowed to define us—our jobs, our successes, our vices, and our sins. It’s not always suffering the detachment from negative things but can also mean suffering the detachment from good things. For instance, doing ministry at your parish, loving your family, being called into public ministry, and more are all very good things in and of themselves, but when we allow those things to replace or distract from worship of God, we must suffer the detachment from said things.
Lent is a gift to us as it invites us to strip away at the trappings of this world until all that remains is Christ on the cross. And the ashes we will receive are a reminder of what we are called to this Lent—to die, to burn it all down until only the ashes remain—and those ashes lead us to the Paschal Mystery. This reality serves as the foundation for which right choice is made and the avenue in which authentic freedom is defined.
Does this thing or this habit bring me to the cross? If the answer is no, then may you temper your desire for it through the holy fire of Lenten penance. And may you begin this season with ashes on your forehead, harkening to the onlookers that you pass on Ash Wednesday that God is indeed alive and through the darkest seasons, Easter is coming.