By Fr. Stephanos Pedrano
You are most likely wearing ashes on your head for at least part of today.
Also, whether or not you’ve ever physically traveled on a pilgrimage, right now somewhere inside your head and heart you spiritually have us, who call ourselves collectively Sick Pilgrim.
We, these sick pilgrims, embrace willingly and openly among ourselves persons who have various experiences of Catholicism:
- persons who are seeking to grow as Catholic followers of Christ;
- those who are at a standstill as Catholic seekers;
- persons who are Christian, not formally Catholic, but moving in that direction;
- Christians who are not Catholic and do not desire to be so;
- persons who were Catholic Christians, but who no longer hold to the Catholic faith or even to Christianity itself;
- persons who do not believe in God.
All of us have various experiences of Catholicism: Catholicism as a living tree, Catholicism as a forest fire, even Catholicism as a cold heap of ashes.
There’s a travel plan for sick pilgrims in Matthew 6:1-6,16-18, which is the Gospel reading for the Roman Mass of Ash Wednesday.
[Note. In case you did not already know, be aware that Catholicism includes six major forms of the rite for celebrating the “Mass,” that is for celebrating the Gospel and Eucharistic Body and Blood of Christ. The oldest major ritual form, ancestor of the others, is the Antiochene, named for Antioch, the city that became Christianity’s first headquarters after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The five major descendants of the Antiochene rite are also named for cities or lands: the Alexandrian, Chaldean, Byzantine, Armenian, and Roman or Latin rites. The Roman rite has a yearly Ash Wednesday and a specific Gospel reading for it.]
There is no mention of ashes in the Roman rite’s Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday.
But shortly after we hear that reading in church, we line up to let the clergy or their helpers put on our heads a bit of cold ashes as they also put into our ears a reminder or two: Repent, and believe in the Gospel, or Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
When things burn up, or burn down, ashes remain.
Then you can either walk away from whatever burned, or you can rebuild, start over.
In either case, you’ve got a process, a procession, a pilgrimage.
So, whether you’re walking away or you’re starting over, what is the travel plan in that Ash Wednesday Gospel reading?
In the end, that reading is about working at having an intimate relationship with a person whom Jesus calls there your heavenly Father.
Ash Wednesday starts us off on a season of pilgrimage towards intimacy with that Father.
That pilgrimage reaches its ritual fulfillment on Easter, with people either becoming new children of that Father through the promises and rite of Baptism or renewing their relationship with that Father by voicing once more the vows of Baptism.
If you do not believe in God, this Gospel reading still offers a lesson for work towards intimacy in human relationships.
So, let’s turn anew (repent) in the direction of those ashes and that Gospel reading where we start this pilgrimage to intimacy!
That reading mentions three tactics: alms (from the Greek word for mercy), prayer, and fasting.
All three make you vulnerable.
Alms, merciful gifts to the needy, deplete in some measure your material goods, leaving you in material vulnerability.
Prayer as Jesus urges it in that reading is to take place with a closed door between yourself and the acclaim, presence, and comfort of other human persons, thus leaving you in social vulnerability.
Fasting is doing without some measure of the food you normally eat, and this leaves you with bodily vulnerability.
Vulnerability: material, social, and bodily.
- The social vulnerability of solitary prayer turns you in the direction of God personally.
- The material vulnerability of giving away alms turns you in the direction of the welfare of your human neighbor in need.
- The bodily vulnerability of fasting turns you in the direction of facing yourself as both soul and body.
Those three tactics or directions are comprehensive (one meaning of the word catholic), being the three directions or kinds of personal relationships that are possible: with your God, with your neighbor, and with your own self.
In the Ash Wednesday Gospel, Jesus tells us to offer to the Father in secret, in a hidden way, the vulnerabilities involved in those three tactics.
To offer your vulnerability to another person as a secret hidden from everyone else is to open yourself to intimacy with that person.
No real or sincere intimacy happens without that offer of vulnerability.
That is risky.
The word vulnerability comes from the Latin for able to be wounded.
The risk is that you could get wounded, even reduced to ashes.
And that is a sick pilgrimage.
But it is a pilgrimage that even God in Christ undertook.
Weeks after Ash Wednesday, the last milestone before Easter is Good Friday, the day when God in Christ consummated his vulnerability as a member of humankind and for humankind, opening, wounding himself unto and into Holy Communion in our human lot as it truly now is, suffering unto death for the sake of being truly Emmanuel— truly GOD-WITH-US — with us unconditionally in all things.
In Baptism and its vows, we lay our personal claims on the promise God-in-Christ made to carry vulnerably our humanity into Resurrection and Ascension so that we shall at last be HUMANKIND-WITH-GOD unconditionally in all things and without end.
Yet even without believing in God, the Ash Wednesday Gospel reading is a travel plan for all real intimacy between persons.
It divinizes us if we are believers in God, but only because it humanizes us truly, even if we are not believers in God.
Please join us in this sick pilgrimage!
Fr. Stephanos Pedrano O.S.B., Monk and Priest of Prince of Peace Abbey, Oceanside, California.