It's OK, they just want ashes

A woman receives ashes on Ash Wednesday at St. Francis of Assisi Church in New York March 5, 2014. (CNS photo/Long Island Catholic/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Ash Wednesday at the University of Scranton. Huge crowds. T-shirted guys. Sweat-shirted gals. Many with backpacks and all with cellphones. They are young, full of energy, and radiating the promise of 20-somethings. Six hundred-plus attend each Mass. Why? Because a Jesuit is finally giving something away for free? Even if it's only a black smudge on the forehead? Maybe.

Many will give something up for Lent. I hope the church can encourage them to dare for something greater. I hope we entice them to imagine their and our world's transformation.

Each Ash Wednesday we hear, "Repent and believe in the Gospel." Or "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." Both statements are about transformation: transformation of ourselves into followers of Jesus, destined to live in Love forever.

Transformation is all about change. There was this elderly Amish woman who went with her family to a mall for the first time in their lives. The whole family was mesmerized by the hundreds of stores, the lights, the food court. And then, for the first time in her life, the Amish woman sees an elevator. She watches as an elderly man approaches the elevator doors and enters. Doors close. A minute later, the doors open and a guy looking like George Clooney steps out. She sees another old guy get on, and, a minute later, out comes a Matt Damon look-alike. A third old man goes in and out comes a Ryan Gosling-type dude. She calls to her daughter, "Quick, go get your father."

Transformation in Christ is not about becoming a swimsuit model or a guy with six-pack abs. Transformation is not the craziness of wild college partying or becoming the Wolf of Wall Street.

The true transformation we long for is freedom from all that holds us back, oppresses us, freedom for all we desire to be and to do, freedom to be in active, loving relation with God and others. Ashes are a sign of our deepest desire: transformation. They are a sign of our awareness of reality, that we want to live in the freedom of Jesus Christ, that we choose to be transformed.

Ashes signal that we want to get out of our prisons: the thoughts and habits and modes of being that block our awareness of love. Years ago, I was in Riverfront State Prison in Camden, N.J. I walked out into the prison yard after Ash Wednesday Mass. This big guy comes over and says, "Yo, Padre, hit me."

I said, "What?"

"Hit me," he says.

Now he was a very large man, tall and wide, and multi-tattooed. I said, "Hit you?"

He says, "Yeah, those ashes ... hit me."

"Oh." So I put down my bag and lift out the container of ashes and begin to put them on his forehead. About a dozen other guys gather round me for ashes and a bunch of others start walking over. All of a sudden, every siren in the place is going off, two guards come running out of the tower toward us, and a booming voice comes over the loudspeaker.

"Move away from the priest. Now! Do it! Move! Father, are you OK?"

I put up my hands and yell, "Wait, wait, it's OK. They just want ashes."

Ashes signal our desire for God, for love, for new life.

Linda is a kid I knew at Holy Name in Camden in the 1990s. Years later, she was in a car, two guys robbed a store, someone died. Wrong place, wrong time. Linda is doing 25 to life in prison. She has earned her GED while in prison. She has worked hard to change in prison. She is a loved and cherished daughter of our compassionate and caring God. She longs for freedom.

We all want to get out of our prisons. We all want to live in the freedom and joy of the daughters and sons of God. We want mercy and grace, forgiveness and freedom. Ashes signal that we want the grace to change. We want God to free us.

This Lent, instead of just giving something up, we can choose instead to give ourselves up to transformation in Christ. All we have to do is ask and forgive and reconcile, and God will open our prison bars.

[Jesuit Fr. Rick Malloy is vice president for university ministry and mission at the University of Scranton. He is the author of A Faith that Frees: Catholic Matters for the 21st Century and Being on Fire: The Top Ten Essentials of Catholic Faith.]

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