Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. As we spiritually prepare for Easter, let us look at two Scripture verses, one of which diagnoses the current state of the human condition, the other of which provides the solution.
The first is derived from Genesis 3:19, when God, after punishing mankind for the Fall, says, “For ye are dust, and to dust ye shall return.” The condition of mankind after the Fall is marked by a turn away from God. And this reality is used to address a wide variety of questions, including, “How can an entity as sinful as man be created by a morally perfect being such as God?” or “How can life-giving forces and forces that give way to destruction both be so fundamental to the human condition?” The Christian understanding has always been that the way things are, is not the way things should be or were intended to be. God created man in a state of grace, which is the source of life and union with God. Through sin, we fell from such a state. It is for this reason that in the creation story, as well as in post-Biblical theological contemplation, death is often associated with sin, at least symbolically, if not also metaphysically – just as death is a return to non-existence, likewise sin is a turning away from God, Who is the source of all being. Death, decay and the proclivity towards destruction were often seen as signs or expressions of the corruption brought about by sin.
The human condition is thus marked by the privation of God’s grace, and therefore a lack of receptivity to the presence of the all-good and life-giving God. The Season of Lent thus begins with a recognition that this is the current state of the human race. Yet, Scripture not only tells us what the problem is, but also shows us the way out. St. Paul writes, in Romans 6:8, “Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him.” To understand this verse, we need to understand two things. Firstly, mankind was estranged from God. What better way for the estrangement between God and man to be overcome than for God to become man? God became a participant in the things of man, therefore making it possible for man to become a participant in the things of God.
Yet, the renewing of man’s relationship with God took place not only by God entering into the human condition, but also by God striking at the very source of man’s fallen state. Jesus took on a human form so that He could be subject to human sinfulness and death, but in subjecting Himself to it, He also conquered it, as is attested to by the resurrection.
Thus, St. Paul is saying, if we, by grace, unite ourselves to or are identified with Christ’s saving act on the Cross, then we shall be reap the fruits of His glorious resurrection. Man comes forth from nothing, and due to sin is destined to return to nothing; yet, Jesus destroys the dominance of sin and allows man to have everlasting life, restoring the graces lost due to sin.
Thus, as we begin Lent, we need to actively keep before us two major truths: the first concerns our lowliness, the second, our exaltation in Christ. The former truth enables us to see how the way things are is a construct rooted in human sinfulness, and thus the way things are is far from the way they should be. It leads us to recognize our own limitations and faults. It thus fights against the arrogance of presumption and pride. Yet, this same truth also leads to the conclusion that man, if left to his own devices, would continue to sin, and even if he were to stop, cannot fully overcome the effects of his sin or his sinful desires. The man in this stages of conversion is in a situation similar to that described by St. Paul in Romans 7. Yet, the latter truth leads us to recognize that man is hopeless on his own, but God has provided a way out in Christ. In Christ, we are reconciled to God and given the strength to resist sin. Christ shows that God, while a just God, is also a merciful God Who desires our salvation. This latter truth enables us to fight against despair. Sorrow for our sins does include true sorrow for, and hatred towards, our sins, but authentic sorrow for our sins – as opposed to despair – always includes the earnest desire to overcome our sins, emboldened by the faith that, in Christ, it is possible to overcome our sin. As we wear our ashes on our head, remember it is not a sign of holiness, it is not a sign of superiority over others, but a sign that we are sinners who have been saved – to put it in the words of one priest, the ash representing human sinfulness, the shape representing how we have been saved, and that we have been saved.