It is related that King Louis XIV of France, shortly after his ascent to the throne, stood at an open window in his palace and silently admired the simple beauty of the Church of St. Denis, standing some distance away. A servant ventured to remark that all the king's ancestors lay buried in that church and that, doubtless, it would also be His Majesty's last resting place. The very next day the king ordered another palace built so that the Church of St. Denis would be hidden from his view.
It is a weakness in our nature to try to soften the full force of the disconcerting truth that we all must die. We do our best to keep from dwelling too much on this fact lest its morbidity depress us. Expensive caskets with their silk linings, the flowers, the green imitation grass thrown over the newly turned soil in the cemetery, are all designed to pamper our squeamishness about death.
Holy Mother the Church is much more realistic. She has her priests bless ashes, and then place some of these ashes on the foreheads of her children, saying at the same time, "Remember, man, thou art but dust, and into dust thou shalt return."
Sin and death go together. Because Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden, they had to submit to this dreadful penalty, and in like manner, all their descendants. To remind us of this grim fact, the Church places ashes on the foreheads of Her children on each Ash Wednesday, saying, "Remember, man, thou art but dust, and into dust thou shalt return."
There is still another death which the Church would remind us of today----the death of our vices and concupiscences through mortification and penance. The word mortification comes from two Latin words meaning "To make death"; and so in asking us to mortify ourselves during Lent, the Church begs us to deaden our appetites and passions by discipline so that we might live supernatural lives.
The imposition of ashes, then, is not only symbolic of death, but of penance and mortification too. Since there would be no death if there had not been sin, so there can be no supernatural life without mortification and penance. The ashes on our foreheads should so remind us, since holy men like Job and David associated ashes with penance, and the Church has been doing the same thing for almost 2,000 years.
So you see, life, death, mortification, and penance are all brought to our minds by the simple but deeply meaningful ceremony of the imposition of the blessed ashes. Could a more effective way be found to signify the beginning of the penitential season of Lent? The external application of the ashes to our foreheads will be useless and meaningless unless and until we resolve in our hearts to use the forty days ahead to do penance in reparation for our past failures and practice mortification to condition our souls and bodies for the struggles ahead.
Spend some time today in considering the fact that you will sooner or later die and that everyone and everything you hold near and dear to you must be left behind. "To fear death before it comes," says St. Gregory, "is to conquer it when it comes."
Say often this prayer of David: "O Lord, make me know my end, and what is the number of my days that I may know what is wanting in me." (Ps. 38:5)
True devotion in its highest meaning includes love for, and imitation of, the person to whom we are devoted, and Holy Mother the Church presents for our prayerful devotion during Lent the Sacred Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, with the fervent hope that we shall be aroused to imitate Him.
"We should," writes Father Degnam, S.J., "go through the different circumstances of the Passion, and compare them with the occasions of sufferings we meet with in life. They are drops of the chalice which Our Lord asks us to drink with Him. His sufferings of the Scourging, our physical pain; He is treated as a fool by Herod; He was rejected for Barabbas; are we not sometimes rejected for another -- set aside for some one who is certainly more worthy than ourselves? Is not the gall they gave Him to drink like the bitterness we receive when we are longing for consolation? As we look at the dead Body of our Lord hanging on the Cross, we see that His Passion was one long act of submission."
Gratitude should fill our hearts at the thought of God's goodness to us in giving us His own adorable Son as a Model to imitate, so that we have only to look at Him to know what we have to do. Hear Christ Himself say: "I have given you an example, that as I have done to you, so you also should do." (Jn. 13:15) Christ is the only way we must follow, especially in the practice of virtue, and it was during the Passion that His practice of the virtues was strikingly sublime and heroic. In the most trying circumstances Our Lord gave us during the Passion examples of those virtues we somehow seem to lack -- meekness, mercy, charity, silence, patience, abandonment, and obedience to His Father's will -- even unto death.
Well did St. Bonaventure say: "He who desires to go on advancing from virtue to virtue, from grace to grace, should constantly meditate on the Passion of Jesus Christ."
Daily, during the holy season of Lent, let us consider together some detail of the Sacred Passion and death of our Savior, beginning with the Agony in the Garden. Endeavor to seize upon one thought and keep turning it over in your mind during the day. Try to see the virtue practiced by the Master and resolve to imitate that virtue. Strive to find some lesson in each of these daily considerations and resolve to put it into practice during the day. In your examination of conscience at night, examine yourself on how you kept the resolution taken that morning. Little good will result from the study of the Passion unless such a study results in our imitation of Christ. "O foolish Galatians!" cried out St. Paul, "who has bewitched you [that you should not obey the truth], before whose eyes Jesus Christ has been depicted Crucified?" (Gal. 3:1)
After the Last Supper, Christ gathered the Apostles around Him and they set out together for Gethsemani, the Garden of Agony. The name "Gethsemani" is interesting in that it means "oil press"; in other words, it was a place where the fresh olives were pressed and the oil extracted.
What a symbolic spot chosen by the Sacred Redeemer of Mankind for the initial and awful beginning of the Passion! Here He was to take upon Himself the sins of the world and be so crushed under their terrible weight that His Precious Blood flowed from every pore of His Body.
With reverence, then, and with contrite hearts let us begin our contemplation of the Passion of our Lord in the Garden of Gethsemani and pray that your heart and soul will be inflamed with love and aroused to imitate all the virtues practiced by the Savior in His Passion.
Decide now on one positive act of mortification to be practiced this very day, recalling these words of the Imitation of Christ: "The more thou dost violence to thyself, the greater thy progress will be."
Taken from Reflections on the Passion (Meditations for every day in Lent), Father Charles Hugo Doyle, Bruce Publishing Company, 1956, out-of-print.