On my neighborhood’s Facebook page, tucked amid notices about road closings and queries about handymen and window cleaners, was a post that stopped my heart. Four local high school students committed suicide within the span of two weeks. Because I am still reeling from the shooting at Arapaho High School in December, the news both haunts and torments me. What kind of despair envelops our youth to the degree that they choose to snuff out their own lives? How much anger and frustration builds inside of a teenager to warrant blasting a classmate in the face with a shotgun?
I never thought much about the marking that occurs on Ash Wednesday as anything other than a call to penance on an individual basis. This year, I believe I will see it differently. When our children come to the decision that life is not worth living, it is time for a collective wailing and gnashing of teeth. The rather bizarre ritual of smudging ourselves with ashes, symbol of regret and despair, seems apropos for a wounded community. It goes way beyond guilt trips or public shaming. We are a people in pain and need relief, we are sick and need healing.
The late Evelyn Underhill once noted our misconceptions around healing. Rather than getting rid of pain and distress, divine healing restores us to our true selves. Healing, she wrote, is a regeneration, “…bringing life back to what it ought to be, mending that which has broken down, healing our deep mental and spiritual wounds… giving new strength to the weak, new purity to the tainted.” The work of healing is part of each one of our souls, our common vocation as beings made in God’s image and likeness. This brings me hope. We needn’t wear ashes forever. Healing is possible. Hope is eternal. Ash Wednesday will give way to Easter Sunday. Imagine carrying this message to every young person. It would go a long way to helping them see the precious gift of life and the very good reason to stick around and see how it unfolds.
Talk to your family or class about the ritual of Ash Wednesday. What does it mean to be marked with ashes? What life do you hope will arise for your family, parish, school, community, and the entire world this Lent?