Marked in our belonging

A child receives ashes from a prelate during last Ash Wednesday Mass at the cathedral in Guatemala City (March 5, 2014). Catholics around the world began the penitential season of Lent with prayer, fasting and the mark of ashes. (CNS photo / Jorge Dan Lopez, Reuters)

Ash Wednesday is one of my favorite days. I love being part of the lines of people, young and old, slowly snaking forward towards the altar to have the mud of ashes and water marked in a cross on our foreheads. As I walk along, I wonder what is so attractive about this day. I remember one place I worked, where a non-practicing Catholic colleague always asked me to share my ashes with her. She wanted to be part of the day. So what is it about this annual marking? Is it the sense of belonging to a group that people like? Is there something in us that longs to be forgiven and to begin again? Is it the words that are spoken as we are marked:  “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return” or “Repent and believe in the Gospel?” Perhaps our desire for this marking is nothing conscious, but a movement of God’s Spirit within that prompts us to trust in God’s unconditional love for us and to share that same love with others.

We may not remember the story of Cain and Abel, but it is an instructive one. The story tells of God marking Cain as belonging to God even though he has committed the murder of his brother Abel. God had outlined the consequences of giving in to jealousy, telling him that he had the power to master the temptation, but Cain does not listen and succumbs. Once he makes the choice, he becomes fearful of the consequences. He feels alienated and on the fringes of the family. He fears that he will be seen by others as a murderer who could become a target himself. But God says, “No.” He is still part of God’s family, so he marks him saying that if someone does kill him, his death will also be avenged just as Abel’s. Ash Wednesday is a sign of this unconditional love God has for us, but it does not protect us from the consequences of our choices.

Choices. Our Earth, the mud from which we are created, nurtured and shaped, is being affected negatively by choices we are making. It is something that we don’t want to hear about, just like Cain. We give into our impulses without thinking. But, some people are hearing. During this Lent we are being asked to repent – to re-think our actions. We are invited to join a world-wide movement to fast and pray for all our sisters and brothers affected by global warming and to become aware of how our lifestyles impact what is happening. I was challenged to acute awareness last week when I was in Rome at an international meeting of sisters from 29 countries who had been gathered together by the Union of International Superiors General. Throughout the 10 days we heard stories about the suffering of our globe . . . the land, the atmosphere and the people. We were being called to solidarity.

Sisters spoke about the displacement of their island families, losing everything to the rising oceans – their life, their culture and their dreams. Others spoke about loss of food security because rains are no longer falling the way they had for generations. Trees no long attract the rain because they have been cleared to make way for more space to grow the same amount of food that could be grown on less land in prior years. Other sisters described the degradation of Earth as international companies greedily extract minerals and other resources for money and to feed our first-world desires for the newest electronics. Little thought is given to rehabilitation and restoration of the plundered Earth. Countries war with one another for power – humanity and compassion are lost. Deserts of all kinds are being spawned: People are struggling to cope with exploitation, poverty, displacement, violence and loss of human dignity. I hope the fasting of food will be expanded to include energy, electricity, gas, oil and electronics because it is these that we are most addicted to.

Pope Francis tells us to “Wake Up the World” to the life and hope of the Gospel, to Jesus, who came willingly to share our fragility and to teach us that we belong to one another. When God asked Cain where his brother Abel was, he answered, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Jesus’ answer is, “Yes,” you are . . . yes, we are. We do belong to one another, and the mud that marks us each Ash Wednesday is a reminder of this belonging.

[Joyce Meyer, PBVM, is international liaison for Global Sisters Report.]

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