I used to dread Ash Wednesday because of the endless lines of people coming for ashes. By the end of the day, priests look like coal miners.
Sociologists may condescendingly consider the phenomenon of crowds coming for ashes, when they do not enter a church at other times of the year, a habit of tribal identity. If the mystery of the Holy Trinity, or Christ dying and rising from the dead, confounds limited human intelligence, there is still a spark of the sense that biological life has an end as real as its beginning.
For skeptics, the Easter proclamation "Christ is risen" may seem like an indulgence of romance or wishful thinking, but no one drawing breath can deny that "dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return."
God gives life and does not intend to take it away. He resents mortality, and when he came into the world that he had made good, he wept to see how it had gone wrong.
"Jesus wept" (John 11:35), and those tears were not because he was poor or hungry or insulted, or because of bad harvests or unpredictable climate or corrupt governments. He wept because someone had died. "I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly" (John 10:10).
Even if some think that is too good to be true, every day radio and television advertisements promise that you will feel better if you take their multiple vitamins or subscribe to their weight-loss programs. This is what philosophers call the élan vital, or the will to live. The 40 days of Lent, which go faster than health regimens, offer a promise of life beyond death more audacious than any promise of improved nutrition or medical cures.
In 1970 the film Love Story was a real tear-jerker, breaking records for its profits at the box office. Its closing line was "Love means never having to say you're sorry." It was an altruistic sentiment, but God is love and not sentiment.
Divine love is so powerful that, as Dante wrote, it "moves the sun and the other stars." That power is offered to the human soul, which is in the image of God. "Know you not that the saints shall judge this world? And if the world shall be judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the smallest matters?" (1 Corinthians 6:2).
Powerful love, sanctifying grace, is available through the absolution of sin. "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8). We shortchange ourselves of splendor if we do not tell God we are sorry, as "perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18).
Lent is not an unwelcome burden, for it is the gateway to glory greater than the sun and the other stars.