By Bishop Joseph R. Kopacz, D.D.
“Reform our lives and believe in the Gospel, remembering that we are dust and unto dust we shall return.” The admonitions with the distribution of ashes are a sobering reminder that this world presents many roadblocks on the path to life. We always hear one or the other as the ashes are placed upon us. Reform or remember!
Through the years I have often wished that we could combine the options in order to enter more fully into the death and resurrection of the Lord who reveals the wisdom of God in the Cross. Sin, sickness, suffering and death have cast a shadow over the human condition since the fall from grace, but it has been intensified over the past year through the pandemic. Enormous hurt and undying heart have been on display each day. Is this the paradox of the Cross, and an invitation to see with the eyes of faith that every day the Lenten call to pray, to fast, and to give alms drive the efforts of many?
This year’s journey through Lent can immerse us in the paradox of the Cross, and the power of the resurrection, perhaps in a way that we never have known. With St. Paul we proclaim to the world that “the message of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God. To those who are called, Jesus Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1Cor 1:18ff)
In his message on the world day of prayer for the sick this week for the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, Pope Francis speaks to the rhythm of dying and rising at the foot of the Cross. “The experience of sickness makes us realize our own vulnerability and our innate need of others. It makes us feel all the more clearly that we are creatures dependent on God. When we are ill, fear and even bewilderment can grip our minds and hearts; we find ourselves powerless … Sickness raises the question of life’s meaning, which we bring before God in faith.”
In his world-wide gaze, Pope Francis repeatedly has called for a more just social order because “the current pandemic has exacerbated inequalities in our healthcare systems and exposed inefficiencies in the care of the sick. Elderly, weak and vulnerable people are not always granted access to care, or in an equitable manner.”
This is the agony of the Cross in our sin and suffering afflicted world. Yet, the Good News of Jesus Christ does not end in hopelessness but in the power of God in the words of our Holy Father.
“The pandemic has also highlighted the dedication and generosity of healthcare personnel, volunteers, support staff, priests, men and women religious, all of whom have helped, treated, comforted and served so many of the sick and their families with professionalism, self-giving, responsibility and love of neighbor. A silent multitude of men and women, they chose not to look the other way but to share the suffering of patients, whom they saw as neighbors and members of our one human family … Such closeness is a precious balm that provides support and consolation to the sick in their suffering. As Christians, we experience that closeness as a sign of the love of Jesus Christ, the Good Samaritan, who draws near with compassion to every man and woman wounded by sin.” This is the living icon of the presence of God in our world, and the view from eternity for all disciples baptized into the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus.
“Unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat, but if it dies it produces much fruit.” (John 12:24) It is never easy to die to sin and selfishness, but may our prayer, fasting and almsgiving unite us to the Lord’s Cross and resurrection as we allow the Gospel to turn ashes into grains of faith, hope and love during this Lent and always. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning, great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23)