Rituals can become empty of meaning. We do certain things but don't know why we do them. It is like buying provisions in a food store and not knowing the product's origin. For children, this usually means knowing that eggs come from a chicken, bacon from a pig, and anchovies from the sea. We can go further in our inquiry and reflect that many products come not from nature, but from a laboratory, a genetically-modified product, with food coloring and other sorts of preservatives to make the product look attractive for purchase and profit. If we continue our habit of asking questions in the local supermarket, we might find that something else is lurking under profit-driven motives. Ethics might call into question and give new meanings to the mechanisms of profit-making. The single minded profit motive is like roaming saber-toothed tiger in the fresh organic meat aisle that is nothing like a cute pussy-cat!
Meaning is what gives our rituals "fire." Rituals exist to make connections, relationships, applications, and decisions. Rituals integrate our lives with the Sacred. If the ritual lacks meaning, then there is a tendency toward magic and superstition. We sit before the Blessed Sacrament, or have ashes mark our foreheads, or say the Rosary because "something magical" is going to happen. Or if we do the action of the ritual, we might think it will act as a sort of spiritual bank deposit for future needs. So many of our rituals have become empty of meaning because of the loss of connection between symbols with ordinary experiences. The Cross is an example. So too is the practice of fasting.
Nevertheless, Ash Wednesday is a good starting place to fuel our rituals with new sense of meaning and vital application to our lives. It is our right to ask questions about our rituals and symbols. Ask the question 'Why?' When we ask questions, new connections are made, and new connections give birth to new meanings and new applications in the practical dimensions of the every day. We have precedents for examining our spiritual practices: Jesus talks about the old and new treasures (Mt. 13:51-52); Augustine is famous for the expression "ever ancient, ever new;" Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council with its purpose that the "deposit of faith is the same, but the way it is expressed, is different;" and Lonergan takes as his motto the saying of Leo XIII - vetera novis augere et perficere (to add to and perfect the old by means of the new)(Insight, xvi). We are in good company when we ask questions about things that matter most.
This introduction to Lent is longer than I anticipated. So I am going to cut it short and leave this blog with a few points for reflection.
What new meaning can we give to Ash Wednesday? For me, ashes mean there was a fire, and the fire ceased to blaze, it went cold, and died. Ashes represent a sort of "death" to a source of energy. Or is this "death" a kind of transition phase, a transformation, a "transubstantiation" of primary elements? Whatever it is, something happened. I like to think that Ash Wednesday is the opening of a Story about newness and change. And Ash Wednesday is like the Preface to a book that "invites" the reader into a deeper exploration of the self, for that is what the Story is about. Everyone loves a story. This story is about Everyone.
The opening page begins with ashes on the forehead. This element of transition is marked on our minds, our brains, where thoughts, images, feelings, emerge and are processed. The forehead is the doorway into the inner self, to the sanctuary of thinking, insight, knowledge/wisdom, sacred space, a sanctuary of conscience, a place for encounter, the big Story. Ash Wednesday is an invitation to see the human side as distinct from all other living forms of life: the species that self-reflects on that fact that it is reflecting. The human is evolution coming to the realization that it is evolving. The human has the capacity to be "intelligent." It thinks and is moved by wonder and awe. Such wonder invites the human into deeper questioning - "Why?" In that questioning a "You" runs across the field of conscious awareness like a deer in the forest. One moment it is here, then it disappears. It is gone; I'm left with the memory. "What did I see?" "Was it real?" "Nah, it was a figment of my imagination; don't trust it." Hence, the beginning of sin.
Ash Wednesday reminds us that somewhere along the way we put on the breaks to evolution. We stopped thinking and wondering. We are not intelligent. Violence exists because humans do not know how to think. Lent can be an invitation into thinking about thinking, understanding, and insights. Lent helps us to see prejudice, bias, and short-sightedness as blockages to thinking, understanding, and insights. These blockages that Lonergan calls "flight from understanding" (I call it sin) affect the entire community or social fabric in society. Decisions made with clear-thinking have consequences, and so too, do muddled and self-centered thinking have consequences; one builds up the community and the other diminishes it.
So Lent is a time to begin to ask questions. Lonergan again can help us with what he wrote in the opening pages of his masterpiece Insight:
At least we can make a beginning by asking what precisely it is to understand, what are the dynamics of the flow of consciousness that favors insight, what are the interferences that favor oversight, what, finally, do the answers to such questions imply for the guidance of human thought and action (p. 9; see p. 14).
During this sacred time of year, let us concentrate not so much on my personal sins, but on the ripple-effect of those sins on others throughout the community, including the community of non-human life forms. The ripple-effect has its origin in our decisions, and our decisions emerge from how we think, or do not think. Such effects paralyze the whole, the opposite of St. Paul's notion of the living body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12f). Once we gain the vital insight into our own reasoning and judging, then we can say that these ashes we wear are burning embers in the inner self.
That is why the ritual of Ash Wednesday is a cause for rejoicing. It is our Story.