An imposition

Rather than read me today, gentle persons really ought instead to visit Sandro Magister’s blog, and follow his links to the Ash Wednesday homilies delivered by Joseph Ratzinger, as Pope. They are a treasury. Read them, one after another, from 2006 to 2013, and one may begin to understand what is meant by the phrase, “Doctor of the Church.”

But if you are still here, let me afflict you with a little of my nostalgia. It will be for the first time the ashes were imposed on me, decades ago, as a Christian convert in an Anglican church (in England). Listening to the homily in my Catholic church this morning, I was reminded of it. Specifically, of that word: “imposed.” The Anglican priest — surely by now a member of the Ordinariate, if he is still living — had used the word to explain something that might otherwise be lost on his congregation, or sensed as an uncomfortable paradox.

The older sort of Englishman — at least, the sort whom I could still find alive in the 1970s — did not like ostentation. His Christianity he might not deny, but the idea of having the cross of ashes inscribed on his forehead, to be worn about later on the streets, could not appeal to him. I had to catch myself from rubbing it away, the moment I stepped outside the church. I could understand exactly how he felt, sharing, perhaps, in the genetic heritage.

Through Lent we are taught not to make an issue of our penances; even, from charity, to abandon them in the moment when some well-wishing soul, who ought to have known better, offers us some luxury we had foresworn. (Take it thankfully.) We were taught this by Christ; ministers of His gospel are merely repeating what they heard from Him in Palestine, all those years ago:

“And when you fast, be not as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head, and wash your face — that you appear not unto men to fast, but unto your Father, who is in secret. And your Father, seeing in secret, will repay you.”

The hair-shirt, the sackcloth, is worn underneath, not outwardly — unless as part of the ancient costumage of mourning; or perhaps you have mistaken yourself for one of the Hebrew prophets. But in these cases the garments were also externally imposed, and worn as a mark of humility. By which I do not mean a humble gesture; I mean a sign of having been humbled. And this, even if we have sought it, for we cannot rightly put it on ourselves.

The ashes do not mark us specifically as Catholics; they are not strictly sacramental, as you will learn from Ratzinger. Instead, they mark us as dust. “From dust you were raised and to dust you will return.” In the same moment they mark us out: as a chattel, belonging to Our Lord; turning in repentance from death towards the life He has offered.

All Christian sects stand together in this respect, as brothers; and at a time when there is painful controversy about who may take Communion in the Catholic Church without harm, all may kneel for ashes. Even small children, beneath the age of reason (seven or so), and therefore not yet capable of mortal sin, will not be turned away; as I saw this morning. For during the distribution, a holy priest delayed the acolytes, kneeling down with solemn gravity before a little child — who was himself nearly standing to reach the top of the altar rail. This priest drew the cross upon the child’s forehead with extraordinary care, as if it were the most important thing he had ever done.

Many Evangelical and other Protestant churches have returned to the observance of Ash Wednesday. It is a symbol of our regathering.

Wearing the ashes we go out as pilgrims, over the mystical geography of the ancient Lenten stations at Rome, marked with this dust as Christ’s own.

It is the mark of our death; of the death we still owe — but too, the touch of this Tremendous Lover, which having received we want never to wash away.