“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
With these words pronounced during the ceremony for the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, February 17, 2021, we will begin the penitential season of Lent in preparation for the glorious celebration of Christ’s Resurrection from the dead. This year the imposition of ashes will follow a different form of distribution due to safety precautions necessitated by the coronavirus. This form is described in the box that appears below.
As I contemplated this message that ordinarily speaks of Lenten practices of penance, I could not help but acknowledge the many penances you have endured resulting from the coronavirus pandemic. Isolation, the inability to visit loved ones, the sacrifices of all who serve the public in the medical, scientific, educational, safety, food and housing fields, agencies and programs are just some of the areas representing our present state of great sacrifice, which is penance lived positively in the form of charity, love for one’s neighbor.
I also recognize the sacrifices of our priests, deacons, religious, lay ministers, staffs and volunteers who have worked so diligently to keep the flame of faith burning brightly in our parishes. Whenever I have celebrated parish Masses, diocesan ceremonies or the funerals of our priests, I noticed that immediately following upon these ceremonies, pews and other public areas were being cleaned and sanitized by volunteers working with parish staffs. And all the protocols to assure safety were in place.
Yes, we have lived and are living in a very extended Lenten season that has made great demands upon us. How we have responded can truly pave the way to understanding the cross, which foreshadowed in the crucified Christ the glory of Easter, transforming ashes into life, ransoming us from the fragility of our humanity and bestowing upon us the dignity of being called the sons and daughters of God. No human crisis can ever sever the bond between God and His people. And while at our life’s end our mortal bodies turn to dust, our souls live on; the soul “is immortal: it does not perish when it separates from the body at death, and it will be reunited with the body at the final Resurrection” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 366). The Risen Lord, Our Savior, “will change our lowly body to be like His glorious body, into a spiritual body” (Ibid, no. 999).
It is this bond between God and His people that gives every person real hope. Hope is one of the great Lenten messages. The pandemic has brought us to many silent moments, but in this silence have we talked to Jesus? Lent is a season of contemplation, a time to rediscover the union of heaven and earth, time and eternity in Christ. Lent helps us to understand how the events of this earthly life are always accompanied by Jesus; we are never alone. Once we come to this realization, we have reason for hope; we appreciate that the limitations of this life are lifted through the promise of eternal life with God in the halls of heaven.
In seeking reasons for hope, Lent causes us to ask the most basic questions. As we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ Resurrection, the promise of eternal life, we must ask: “Do I really believe in eternal life? Life without end in the presence of Jesus?” At every Holy Mass, in the prayers of the church and in our creed, we profess belief in “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” Our faith constantly points to what is beyond the horizons of this life.
Yet while we profess belief in the creed that Jesus “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end,” eternity and God’s judgment of our lives can seem so removed from the present moment. Heaven, eternity, life with God forever become vague concepts, less real, even a fantasy. We sing about the celestial kingdom, yet the words can fail to touch the mind, the heart and the soul. But without belief in this ultimate communion with God, what is our destiny? Were we not meant for more than this world can give? What of the countless lives lost in war, violence, disease, poverty, gross acts of inhumanity? Were the lives of the holy martyrs sacrificed for a myth? If we truly believe in Christ’s Resurrection, then we believe every life is precious to God who can transform the tragedies of this life into the beauty of eternal life with Him. Now we find hope. Pope Francis tells us: “We do not live without a goal and a destination. Jesus has reserved a place for us in heaven. He took on our humanity to carry us beyond death to a new place in heaven so that where he is, we also may be. God is in love with us; we are his children. We were made for heaven, for eternal life, to live forever” (Angelus Message, May 10, 2020).
How we navigate through this pandemic is joined to our faith, which provides the strength and the courage to bear the crosses in our lives and to help others bear their crosses, seeing in our personal crosses the hope of Easter. It is for this reason our churches have remained open: to reveal the presence of Jesus, to provide comfort and consolation, to remove fear and anxiety, to provide hope! To raise us up from the ashes and to see the glow of eternal life. Then, and only then, can we cry out “Alleluia” on Easter Sunday!
During these days, let us entrust our diocese to the care of Our Mother Mary, especially as we celebrate World Day of the Sick this month. In his message for this day, Pope Francis writes: “The celebration of the XXIX World Day of the Sick on 11 February 2021, the liturgical memorial of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Lourdes, is an opportunity to devote special attention to the sick and to those who provide them with assistance and care both in healthcare institutions and within families and communities. We think in particular of those who have suffered, and continue to suffer, the effects of the worldwide coronavirus pandemic. To all, and especially to the poor and the marginalized, I express my spiritual closeness and assure them of the Church’s loving concern.”
United with you in prayer as we stand before the threshold of the Lenten season, I remain,
Devotedly yours in Christ,
The Most Reverend
Salvatore R. Matano
Bishop of Rochester