Ash Wednesday and the gift of Lent

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Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the Christian season of suffering, repentance, and for some, the purgatorial path to redemption.

For Christians, the gift of Christ’s suffering and the sacrifice of the Cross is the seminal event in the road to eternal salvation. On Ash Wednesday, we are reminded of the ephemerality of this world, the emptiness of sin, and the preeminence of God’s everlasting kingdom: “Remember, man, thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.”

Lent reminds Christians to reflect upon the great struggle between time and eternity – the primeval tension between the City of Man and the City of God, which fuels the engine of history. In contrast to the false idols of materialism, progress, and freedom, the City of God offers hope in the reality of true salvation, which can only be achieved by renouncing sin and following the Way of the Cross.

Lent demands our conversion to the ways of Christ. It commands us to turn away from the self-indulgent pride and lust that, when unchecked, devours our souls and consumes us with emptiness and sorrow. But while sin makes monsters of men, the gift of Lent allows us to reclaim our souls from the hells we construct for ourselves through the misdirection of our own free will.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the Christian season of suffering and repentance that commands us to turn away from self-indulgent pride.

In “Ash Wednesday,” T.S. Eliot’s so-called “conversion poem,” the power of sin and the struggle to transcend the temptations of the corporeal world are presented in a manner in which the Incarnate Word becomes a reality in the written word:

Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree/In the cool of the day, having fed to satiety/On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been contained/In the hollow round of my skull. And God said/Shall these bones live?

Through his invocation of the white leopard – the manifestation of violent but willful lust from Dante’s Purgatorio – Eliot acknowledges the power of desire, the all consuming conflagration of obsessive self-indulgence. The leopards of lust feed on our essential organs, and by doing so, render us nothing more than dry bones, “scattered and shining,” emptying our bodies of those things which make us truly human.

But that lust is eclipsed by the juniper-tree, which, in the Book of Kings, provides shelter to the Prophet Elijah who had declared his wish to die rather than live in depression and fear. “It is enough; now, O LORD, take my life, for I am not better than my fathers,” the prophet begged before falling asleep in the desert. But, while slumbering beneath his arboreal shelter, Elijah is visited by an angel who provides him nourishment and renewal. Because of his confession, God takes mercy on Elijah and provides him with the will to live.

Each day, we live with the hungry leopards who snack on the organs of desire. We allow ourselves to reside in the lonely dry desert of self-indulgence, consumed by greed, avarice, sex, anger, and pride. In our search for self-fulfillment and earthly success, we turn away from the eternal, reject the true source of happiness, and shun the love of the One who suffered unspeakable torment for our transgressions. In accepting the dominance of sin in our lives, we become the very evil that seduces us with false promises of pleasure and success.

Lent is the season of hope, the season of repentance, and the season of letting go of the belief that the self is the center of reality and the measure of good.

But Lent is the season of hope, the season of repentance. Even the most wicked can find shelter under the juniper-tree by placing his trust in God, by letting go of the belief that the self is the center of reality and the measure of good. None of us is beyond salvation, but we must choose to climb the stairs of active will in which we are required to confess, like Eliot’s protagonist: “Lord, I am not worthy/Lord, I am not worthy/But speak the word only.” Through our confession, our acknowledgment of our wrongful choice to speak only the “word” and not the “Word” (that is, our proclivity to choose the secular word and world over the Incarnate Word and World), we can avail ourselves of God’s everlasting love.

As John’s Gospel begins, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us.” To the Christian, this is the central mystery of human existence and the meaning of time and eternity. When we pursue our secular desires at the expense of the Incarnate Word, we reject the reality of existence and the sovereignty of God.

But when we can humbly admit our obsession with the “empty forms” of the secular world and acknowledge our own shortcomings, we can begin to purge ourselves of the sin that rots our souls and poisons our world.

Lent is the time to “turn the stair” and embrace the Incarnate Word. Ash Wednesday is the day we begin that journey. It is our day to confess, to beg for God’s mercy, and to look forward to the triumph of the Incarnate Word over the seductive forces of this world.

Glen A. Sproviero is a commercial litigator in New York. Read his previous columns here.