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Beginnings and endings

Ash Wednesday is not a day of obligation for Catholics. Yet it is traditionally one of the best-attended liturgies of the year. It is surprising how many people will make the effort to begin Lent well by going to Mass and receiving the ashes.

The symbol or image of the ashes has gone deep into our culture. Many people cannot explain why, yet they know that it is the most important day of Lent.

To begin well is good. And on Ash Wednesday, 32 days ago, the Church put before us the pattern of prayer, of fasting and of giving to the poor, as a model for Lent.

So again, it is a good time for us to reflect and review these few weeks, while at the same time looking ahead to Easter.

Ashes, black with the consumption of wood, speak to us of death, where all life is consumed. They speak to us of the reality of our human existence, when love dies, when hope dies, when faith wilts away.

But the Lenten season speaks to us of the struggle between life and death, and tells us in advance the nature of the victory. 

In the gospel story, there is a kind of preliminary skirmish, and as Jesus draws in the sand a drama of truth and illusion unfolds.

How have these weeks of Lent been for us? Surely we have reviewed our lives. 

No doubt we have observed the reality of our own sins—and used this Lent to seek a new freedom through God’s mercy and forgiveness.

No doubt we have been hurt by the sins of others—and we have used this Lent to seek a new freedom from being permanent victims. Our religion, our faith, is not something remote and pie-in-the-sky, but something real in the events, big and small, of our daily lives.

Each of the rituals of Lent, each one of the many symbols, speak to us about the lives we have to lead.

Symbols of water speak of the life and growth which overcomes all prejudices and divisions.

Symbols of light and darkness speak of the full life where we can see and live. And the themes of life and death, struggling for conquest, will come to their peak on Calvary, when the sky will be darkened in the apparent victory of death.

But from the darkness comes the dawn of Easter and the symbols take on a new meaning. The Paschal light will break the night, and the water of the baptism ritual will mean more than physical or moral cleaning: it will carry the meaning of life’s victory, even to eternal life.

Perhaps in the week ahead, we can take one of these symbols each day, as an opportunity for us to reflect. A short journey on the train, a long journey on the cross Harbour Tunnel bus, these are good times for prayer. And maybe there is something special just for us, some special struggle, to bring to the fore in the last week of Lent.

The dawn will surely come!