He dwells among us: Joy and ashes

Ashes should be a distinctive sign, not only of our Catholic faith but also of our joy in Christ and his cross

It always amazes me how quickly we seem to transition from the joyful celebration of the Christmas season to the penitential season of Lent. But their close proximity, particularly this year with Ash Wednesday falling on Feb. 13, I think serves as a wonderful reminder that true joy not only includes the cross but also embraces it.

There is something of a lesson that I find is reinforced each year as people depart from Mass on Ash Wednesday. Depending upon the consistency of the ashes, some bear a more or less discernible trace of the cross upon their forehead, and others have what seems to be but a smudge.

I remember once when marking the forehead of a young woman, a good amount of ash from my thumb fell on her nose, which I hastily tried to brush off. But all I managed to do was smudge her nose with more ash than she had on her forehead. No doubt she received many odd looks as she returned to her pew. But she is the only person I know who had a good excuse to wash the ash away—from her nose that is, not her forehead—before she went out in public.

We should never be afraid of the cross—whether it is in bearing its image upon our forehead as a witness of our Catholic faith, or in bearing our own crosses in life and in helping others to bear theirs. If you truly seek Christ in all you do, be it in your marriage and family, in your work or school, and try to be his feet, his arms and hands, and his face to others, particularly those deemed “least” in society (cf. Matthew 25:40), how could you ever be embarrassed to be identified as a Catholic?

But the true mark of the cross we should bear visibly each day is not of ash, but that of joy—a joy that only Christ can give—through his cross. If St. Paul can say, “I rejoice in my suffering for your sake…” (Colossians 1:24), it was because he had discovered Christ’s joy who suffered for love of us. To the Christian song with its refrain, “They will know we are Christians by our love,” I would add “joy.” This is possible only when we stop seeking perfection as an end in itself, and instead seek Christ who alone is perfect and our true joy, even in suffering (cf. Matthew 6:33).

When I think of saints, I think of joy—saints are not sad. Next to my office desk, I have the picture of a man who I think of as an “Apostle of Joy”—Cardinal François-Xavier Nguyen Van Thuân (d. 2002). His episcopal motto was “Gaudium et Spes,” the title of one of the very beautiful documents of the Second Vatican Council, meaning “Joy and Hope.” While most of us only wear ashes once a year, Cardinal Van Thuân wore them every day for 13 years in various Communist prisons in Vietnam, nine of them in solitary confinement. But because he wore those ashes with such joy and embraced his cross in Christ every day, he won over to the Gospel even the harshest of his atheist camp guards as well as many of his fellow prisoners.

Some years after his release from captivity I met him in Rome while he was serving as the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. I distinctly remember his unique pectoral cross, which encased a wooden cross visible through oval openings in the metal. It was this wooden cross that he had secretly carved during his captivity and kept hidden in a bar of soap. But what was more striking about Cardinal Van Thuân was his joy in Christ, which the ashes of his long suffering had only made more radiant.

A wonderful book I recommend to accompany you on your Lenten journey is “Testimony of Hope” by Cardinal Van Thuân, which contains the spiritual exercises Blessed John Paul II had invited him to give for himself and the Vatican’s Roman Curia during Lent of 2000. They truly are the spiritual exercises of joy and ashes.

May your ashes bring you ever closer to Christ, who is our true joy.

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