How Real are Your Ashes?

Sometimes things get so familiar to us that we stop understanding or reflecting on their deeper meaning.  Each year in RCIA (adult conversion) classes I get some puzzled looks as we discuss the ritual. “What’s  that all about?”  some will say.  There is even some revulsion expressed at having dirty ashes smeared on your forehead. I remember as a kid wondering why so many people liked to rush to Church to get ashes smudged on their forehead. I didn’t like it at all and would secretly rub them off when no one was looking. Today I’ll admit I still don’t like it much,  though I behave myself and do not rub them off!

Please forgive me, I don’t want to seem impious yet I still marvel, as a priest at how many people pack into Church to get ashes on their forehead. Even sadder, many of them don’t seem to want communion as much. In fact significant numbers walk out the door after ashes are given and do not stay for communion. I remember a certain pastor of mine responding to that by not giving Ashes until after Communion.

Most people of course who come to Mass are faithful and have their priorities straight but it still interests me how large the numbers are for something that seems to me to unappealing and also challenging, if we really come to terms with what we are saying in receiving them. I wonder if large numbers would flock for ashes if they really knew that they were saying some pretty powerful stuff and making some extensive promises of a sort.

What, really do ashes signify? Perhaps a brief tour of Scripture is in order:

  1. Humility – Job said, You [Oh Lord] asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’  Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. “You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;  I will question you, and you shall answer me.’ My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself  and repent in dust and ashes.” Job 42:3-6  Notice that Job does not merely repent in a general sense here. But, having encountered God he realizes that God is God and he is a creature, mere dust and ashes in the presence of God who is Being itself, who is All in All. Yes he is a son in the presence of a Father but he is not God’s equal that he might question God or put him on trial. Hence in this case the ashes represent not only repentance, but humility. The Church’s liturgy echoes this theme of humility when she quotes Gen 3:19 “Remember, you are dust and unto dust you shall return” as she places ashes on the individual.
  2. A Sacramental that points to the Sacrament – A man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer and put them in a ceremonially clean place outside the camp. They shall be kept by the Israelite community for use in the water of cleansing; it is for purification from sin….For the unclean person, put some ashes from the burned purification offering into a jar and pour fresh water over them. Then a man who is ceremonially clean is to take some hyssop, dip it in the water and sprinkle the tent and all the furnishings and the people who were there. Number 19:9,17) This text sees ashes obtained from a burned sin offering  and mixed with sprinkled water as a cleansing ritual. In the Old Testament this ritual could not actually take away sin (cf Heb 9:9-13) but it did provide for ritual purity. It also symbolized repentance and a desire to be free from sin. In the same way ashes on Ash Wednesday, mixed with holy water cannot take away sin. They are a sacramental, not a sacrament. To get ashes on Ash Wednesday and not go to confession during Lent is really to miss the point. If one’s desire to repent and to be clean, free of sin,  is real then from the sacramental to the sacrament they go. Otherwise the ritual of Ash Wednesday is pretty pointless.
  3. A sign of a true change – When the news[of Ninevah’s possible destruction in forty days] reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. (Jonah 3:6) Here too repentance is symbolized. But the symbol is not enough. Actual repentance is required. Hence the King does not just “do ashes,”  he issues a decree calling for fasting, prayer and true reform: Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” (Jonah 3:7-9) Hence another option for the priest to say as he places ashes is “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” It is not enough to get a sooty forehead. True repentance is what is called for, an actual intent to change. Otherwise the ashes are a false sign.
  4. A summons to faith and a new mindJesus said, Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes(Matt 11:21). Here Jesus rebukes ancient towns for their lack of faith in what he said. It is good to recall that the Greek word translated here as “repented” is μετενόησαν (metenoesan) which more literally means to come to a new mind or way of thinking.  The fact is that there are many ways that we think about things that are more of the world than of God. Our on-going challenge is to come to a new mind and to think more as God thinks. This is only possible by his grace working through Scripture and Church teaching. It is significant that the ashes are smeared on the forehead or sprinkled on the head. We are called to a faith that transforms our mind. We are called to be “transformed by the renewal of our minds.” (Romans 12:2) Hence another option for the priest is to say, “Repent and believe the Good News” as he places the ashes.

So, how real are your ashes? Do you and I intend these things as we go forth or is it just a ritual, something to do because it’s “sorta neat.”  Pray and reflect on the deeper meaning of ashes.

Talking (Tough) Truth at Funerals

I celebrate just over 50 funerals a year;  about one a week. (People are dying to come to church here). And most of these funerals feature  large numbers of fallen away Catholics and unchurched individuals. Most of these people I see ONLY at funerals and sometimes weddings. For this reason, in recent years, I have altered my approach at funerals and direct almost half of the sermon to the unchurched and call them to repent and return home. Surely in the first part I speak of the deceased, offer thanks to God for their life, entrust them to God and ask the congregation to pray for the repose of the deceased soul. I never fail to menton judgment and purgatory as reasons for this prayer. That is too often not mentioned at Catholic funerals, a terrible oversight if you ask me. But the bottom line is that I spend the first half of the sermon commending the deceased person to God’s benevolent mercy and care.

But given the terribly high loss in the practice of faith and the consequent grave condition of many of the souls at any given funeral I cannot allow (any longer) an omission to be made of summoning them to Christ. How can it be that God has led them to my parish and I would say nothing to them to dissuade them from their path away from God and his sacraments? So many souls today are not only unchurched and backslidden (fallen away), but they are often locked in serious, mortal sin. I cannot know this about any particular individual but it is clear that many are lost like sheep without a shepherd. While conscious of my own sin, I cannot remain silent (any longer) and fail to call the unchurched and fallen away back. And trust me, even at the funeral of strong Catholic families there are MANY who are fallen away. Add to that the fact that many funerals I celebrate are for people who themselves were not always fervent in the practice of the faith. Families of such as these have even more members in need of a sobering  wake up call.

In the video below is an excerpt from a funeral I preached some time ago for a man named Henry who practiced his own faith quite well but whose children and grandchildren largely did not. No more details about this funeral are necessary or appropriate. But with approval of a family member and since the passage of time is significant and the venue undisclosed I do not think any of you readers would have any idea who this individual is or his family. I will not even indicate the city in which this funeral took place. But in it is a good example of what I do at most every funeral in recent years in terms of the second half of the funeral wherein I turn my attention to the unchurched and fallen away.

I will admit that some of the things I say are tough. But remember, I only have them once and I have to come right to the point. No one will follow an uncertain trumpet. A very few have criticized my approach by insisting that funerals are sensitive times and we ought just to console the grieving family and say pleasant and encouraging things. Others, especially the older ones come to me and say, “Thanks Father, there are people in my family that needed to hear it!”  But in the end I cannot preach either to please or displease man. Rather, I have a conviction that this is what God would have me do. I cannot waste an opportunity to clearly warn, as Jesus often did, that judgment day is coming, and maybe sooner than you or I expect. We have to be ready for, at an hour that we do not expect the Son of Man will come (eg Mat 24:44). For those who do not have the time to listen to the video the fundamental points are these:

  1. I hope you will not forget to pray also for yourself today because you are going to die.
  2. What are you doing to get ready to meet God?
  3. There are too many people today who are not serious about their spiritual life. They are goofing off, playing around and laughing their way through life as if it were all some big joke. They do not pray, go to Church or read Scripture. They are committing serious sin and not repenting of it.
  4. If this is you, you are not going to be ready to meet God.
  5. I exhort you to get ready now, delay not your conversion. Be serious about your walk with God by praying every day; reading scripture every day, Church every Sunday.
  6. If you are in serious and unrepented sin, get on your knees today and beg God’s mercy and help. You may not even know how to stop, but tell God you’re sorry and need his help to stop. But do not go on calling good what God has called sinful.
  7. Be serious about it.
  8. Hold to God’s unchanging hand!

I think that without some exhortation of this sort the funeral service can be worse than a missed opportunity, it can be downright harmful. Why do I say this? Because our silence speaks volumes. To many who are locked in serious sin, or fallen away, never to hear a work of exhortation becomes a kind of affirmation, a tacit approval that every thing is fine when it is not. This is harmful silence. To those who say funerals are not good times to speak in strong language, then I say,  “When?”  When will I get a similar opportunity to speak to so many unchurched? When will they hear the “come to Jesus” talk if not then? When?

Here’s the sermon excerpt. I’ve included pictures related to funerals this is really just an audio recording of my sermon with a slide show attached. Remember it is only the second half of a sermon. The first half was largely a commending of Henry to God’s mercy and acknowledgment of his strong faith and love of God; a joyful acknowledgment of his being a gift to us from God. I also reminded the congregation to pray for him since he goes to judgment wherein God may need to purge him of any remaining sorrows, sins or pains brought from this world. And then comes this second half:

Fraternal Correction: the Forgotten Virtue

In these times one of the most forgotten virtues and obligations we have is the duty to correct the sinner. It is listed among the Spiritual Works of Mercy. St. Thomas Aquinas lists it in the Summa as a work of Charity:  [F]raternal correction properly so called, is directed to the amendment of the sinner. Now to do away with anyone’s evil is the same as to procure his good: and to procure a person’s good is an act of charity, whereby we wish and do our friend well. (II, IIae, 33.1)

The World and the Devil have largely succeeded in shaming Christians from this essential work. We are said to be “judging” someone when we call attention to their sin or wrongdoing. In a culture where tolerance is one of the only virtues left, to “judge” is a capital offense. “How dare we do such a thing!”  The world protests, “Who are you to judge someone else!”

Now to be sure, there are some judgements that are forbidden us. For example we cannot assess that we are better or worse than someone else before God. Neither can we always understand and ultimate culpability or inner intentions of another person as though we were God. Scripture says regarding judgments such as these: Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the LORD looks into the heart (1 Sam 16:7). Further we are instructed that we cannot make the judgment of condemnation. That is to say, we do not have the power or knowledge to condemn someone to Hell. God alone is judge in this sense. The same scriptures also caution us against being uncessesarily harsh or punitive. And so we read, Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven…. For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you (Luke 6:36-38).  So in this text “to judge” means to condemn or to be unmerciful, to be unreasonably harsh.

Another text that is often used by the world to forbid making “judgments” is Matt 7:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. 3“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Matt 7:1-5)

But pay careful attention to what this text is actually saying. First as we have already seen the Luke version the word “judge” here is understood to mean an unnecessarily harsh and punitive condemnation. The second verse makes this clear. To paraphrase verse two would be to say, If you lower the boom on others, you will have the boom lowered on you. If you throw the book at others, it will also be thrown at you.” Further, the parable that follows does NOT say not to correct sinners. If says, get right with God yourself and then you will see clearly enough to properly correct your brother.

The fact is that over and over again Scripture tells us to correct the sinner. Far from forbidding fraternal correction, the Scriptures command and commend it.  I would like to share some of those texts here and add a little commentary of my own in Red.

  1. Jesus said, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Matt 18:15-18) Jesus instructs us to speak to a sinning brother or sister and summon them to repentance. If private rebuke does not work and, assuming the matter is serious, others who are trustworthy should be summoned to the task. Finally the Church should be informed. If they will not listen even to the Church then they should be excommunicated (treated as a tax collector or Gentile). Hence in serious matters excommunication should be considered as a kind of medicine that will inform the sinner of how serious the matter is. Sadly this “medicine” is seldom used today even though Jesus clearly prescribes it (at least in more serious matters).
  2. It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body I am present in spirit, and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing. When you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened….I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with immoral men; 10not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But rather I wrote to you not to associate with any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Drive out the wicked person from among you. So the Holy Spirit speaking through Paul commands that we “judge”  the evil doer. Now again in this case the matter is very serious (incest). Notice how the text says he should be excommunicated (handed over to Satan). Here too the purpose is medicinal. It is to be hoped that Satan will beat him up enough that he will come to his senses and repent before the day of judgment. It is also medicinal in the sense that the community is protected from bad example, scandal and the presence of evil. The text also requires us to be able to size people up. There ARE immoral and unrepentant people with whom it is harmful for us to associate. We are instructed to discern this and not keep friendly company with people who can mislead us or tempt us to sin. This requires a judgment on our part. Some judgements ARE required of us.
  3. Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any sin, you who are spiritual should recall him in a spirit of gentleness. Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ. (Gal 6:1-2) Notice we are called to note when a person has been overtaken in sin and to correct him. Note too that the text cautions us to do so in a spirit of gentleness. Otherwise we may sin in the very process of correcting the sinner. Perhaps we are prideful or unnecessarily harsh in our words of correction. This is no way to correct. Gentle and humble but clear, seems to be the instruction here. It also seems that patience is called for since we must bear the burden’s of one another’s sin. We bear this in two ways. First we accept the fact that others have imperfections and faults that trouble us. Secondly we bear the obligation of helping others know their sin and of helping them to repent.
  4. My brethren, if any one among you wanders from the truth and some one brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins (James 5:19) The text is ambiguous as to whose soul is actually saved but that is good since it seems both the corrected and the corrector are beneficiaries of fraternal correction well executed.
  5. You shall not hate your brother in your heart: You shall in any case rebuke your neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him. (Lev 19:17) The text instructs us that to refuse to correct a sinning neighbor is a form of hatred. Instead we are instructed to love our neighbors by not wanting sin to overtake them.
  6. If any one refuses to obey what we say in this letter, note that man, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not look on him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother  2 Thess 3:14  Notice again the medicine of rebuke even to the point of refusing fellowship in more serious matters is commanded. But note too that even a sinner does not lose his dignity, he is still to be regarded as a brother, not an enemy. A similar text from 2 Thess 3:6 says  We instruct you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to shun any brother who walks in a disorderly way and not according to the tradition they received from us.
  7.  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom Col 3:16 To admonish means to warn. Hence, if the word of Christ is rich within us we will warn when that becomes necessary. A similar text from 2 Tim 3:16 says:  All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,  that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. Reproof and correction is thus part of what is necessary to equip us for every good work.
  8. And we exhort you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all 1 Thess 5:14. Here fraternal correction is described as admonishing, encouraging and helping. We are also exhorted to patience is these works.

Well there are more but by now you get the point. Fraternal correction, correcting the sinner it prescribed and commanded by scripture. We must resist the shame that the world tries to inflict on us by saying, simplistically, that we are “judging” people. Not all judgment is forbidden, some judgment is commanded. Correction of the sinner is both charitable and virtuous. True enough it is possible to correct poorly or even sinfully.

But if we are to have any shame about fraternal correction it should be that we have so severely failed to correct. Because of our failure in this regard the world is a much more sinful, coarse and undisciplined place. Too many people today are out of control, undisciplined, and incorrigible. Too many are locked in sin and have never been properly corrected. The world is less pleasant and charitable, less teachable. It is also more sinful and in greater bondage. To fail to correct is to fail in charity and mercy, it is to fail to be virtuous and to fail in calling others to virtue. We are all impoverished by our failure to correct the sinner. Proverbs 10:10, 17 says He who winks at a fault causes trouble; but he who frankly reproves promotes peace….A path to life is his who heeds admonition; but he who disregards reproof goes go astray.

The following video explores the reasonability and necessity of correction and the problems that emerge when correction is forgone.