There are many enjoyable things in this life, innumerable gifts of God's infinite Love for us, His beloved children. We have sports and games, romance and sex, artistic and creative pursuits, academia, friendship, beauty, and so many other wonderful things. And, above all, we are given the eternal joy of knowing and loving our Creator, to understand our purpose on this earth within the context of our mere existence. Only by God's creative and generous love do we have life, and have it to the fullest.
But happiness and joyful things are not the only aspects of life. There is also sin, within ourselves and the world. While there is much good, including the inherent goodness implicit in God's creative act, the world is not entirely as God desires it, "missing the mark" or sinning against God's Will. By this confusion of purpose and context, meaning in life is lost, and all is given up to chaos, power and debauchery.
When we deviate from the fundamental purpose and context of our existence as God's creations by sinning, betraying His love and trust, our souls become tainted. By abandoning God by sinning, we kill our souls, losing a little piece of the heavenly life that only God can give. In His mercy, God has given us many avenues to cleanse and heal these spiritual wounds and to regain the living waters of His grace. He has many covenants with us and each time has fulfilled His promises, culminating in the redemptive life of Christ and the foundation of the Church of His Body. Through the sacraments He instituted and the Traditions of the Church sealed by the Holy Spirit, we can partake of this grace and renew our covenant with God through Christ, the covenant we break each time we sin.
This Ash Wednesday began the Catholic season of Lent, the time of spiritual preparation for the renewal of Easter and commemorating the many trials of Christ's live, particularly that of His 40 days of testing in the desert and His Crucifixion. Lent is a time of fasting and abstinence, more frequent Church attendance and the obligation to penance, self-cleansing and reconciliation. While for many this is a curse rather than a gift from God, in truth it is the greatest opportunity of the liturgical year, the time when we have the chance to take part in the deepest mysteries of God, to truly live the life of Heaven, cleansed by the blood of the Lamb, clothed in white linen of the pure heart and satisfied by the rivers of Living Water which satiates all longing. This is the reality of Heaven portrayed in the Book of Revelation, in which we take part at every Mass, the highest vision of the mind of God. But at no time can we partake of this mystery more deeply than Lent.
For most, it seems, life is a series of gift and curse in this way, "bad luck" or "good luck", the roll of the cosmic dice as to which feeling we will feel next. We live for those moments of pleasure, and endure the difficulties only to get back around to the pleasure which we are confident will come again until that final day when all we see drains away into an infinity of accursed darkness. This is a life without faith, particularly Catholic faith. Christ did not simply die for our sins - He suffered horribly, in all ways, bearing the sin of all mankind in His body, mind and spirit. He felt all the pain, confusion, guilt and death all have felt throughout history, all on His shoulders in that one day. He did not simply die - He was murdered, by all of us.
Being a Christian means living this life of Christ, taking up our cross and embracing it as our salvation, thanking God for the fire of suffering that burns away our sins and like the phoenix lets us rise to new, eternal life in Him. Lent reminds us of this most central Christian concept, that of redemptive suffering and the heavenly mystery of salvation.
Indeed, Ash Wednesday is an even more specific reminder. Feeling as if we're being carried through life, bounced back and forth between various pleasures and pain, we strive only for the pleasures and tend to avoid all that might cause us pain, even if it is for the best. Even though we are supposed to unlearn this as children, most only learn how to endure pain - not suffer it. Without suffering, pain is allowed to twist the mind into a bitter, cynical husk waiting only for the next pleasurable distraction. In this cyclic confusion, this delusional fantasy of godless hedonism where even religion is often used as just another pleasure or painful duty to get over with, we often lose sight of God's Providence.
It is so easy to forget the fact that God is the source and cause of our very existence, all the gifts we have and the tests we must go through. He is our very purpose for existing, to know, love and serve Him with all we are. But we are not immortal. As Ash Wednesday reminds us, we are only "ashes", and will return to ashes - dust to dust. Our time in this world is a gift of God, but it is not eternal; living in the world of sin, we must die, and when we will die is known only to God. We constantly say, "oh, I'll pray tomorrow", or, "oh, I'll give up smoking tomorrow," or, "who needs obligatory Church to worship God?" Well, there just may be no tomorrow - or even a tonight. Or we may live a hundred years - only God can know. But a relationship with God is not therapy; it is not Him giving us pleasures and uplifting sermons and music to make us feel good for a bit, like going to a spa. No - a relationship with God is that of a child, a sibling, a royal servant, and a priest.
God's gifts are not bad - God forbid that they should be perverted into something negative. But by fasting, by offering up ourselves and our valued things to God, we affirm that He alone is Sovereign, the center of our lives and, as the ashes on our foreheads remind, He should be our highest priority. Sure, we can shun God and His Church, avoid self-sacrifice, obligations and difficulties for the sake of momentary pleasures. But is it worth it, "(f)or what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" (Matthew 16:26)