It is the same palm that was waved in a carnival of excitement and colour to welcome Christ into Jerusalem that is burnt into ashes and used to mark the public penitent on Ash Wednesday. The same palm.
Perhaps those public penitents, the same people who jumped up and waved branches to triumphantly welcome Christ as King are the very people who called for His crucifixion. The same people.
Perhaps we are those people. Whether we participate in Carnival activities or engage in the neverending debate about the creativity or crassness of Carnival, a debate which continues to infuriate masqueraders and infiltrate mas camps, we are one and the same.
But does God turn away when the scandalous sinner and the public penitent are one and the same? Or does He still invite us into a season of repentance, in spite of our use of the same palm to celebrate Him and to crucify Him?
The Church prepares us, through Lent, to recognise that the same palm that is today upheld in triumph, can tomorrow droop in despair. That same palm can become blackened ash, to serve a different purpose.
We don’t often recognise the purpose being served as we journey through the varied landscape of our lives. Lent is one part of our journey, the part we like the least.
Often a lonely experience, Lent is our journey into the desert. It takes many forms. For all, Lent is a period of purification and it is painful—whether that pain is the result of the loss of a child, a parent, a sibling, a job, a spouse, a dream, a relationship, a marriage, a financial gain, a religious belief.
Whatever form that suffering takes, the result is the same—we are plunged into the abyss of grief. Self-doubt. Defeat.
The Church teaches that suffering is redemptive, that in the throes of our repentance and grief, the tools to accompany us on that journey is the same – prayer and penance, almsgiving and abstinence.
But has the Church sufficiently equipped us with the knowledge and practice in the use of these tools to survive this desert experience, particularly when prayer is no longer possible, and penance seems pointless?
The Church of the 21st century continues to replicate the powerful symbols of the fourth century for its symbolic significance and its connotative meaning. Some may accuse the Church of being stuck in an age where it merely reiterates the symbolic significance of Lent, having failed to equip its members with the tools needed for the desert experience.
Others suggest that the Church is unable to face its own failure to provide an apt design to more effectively navigate the modern context of our Lenten experience.
During the fourth century, penitents looking for forgiveness and re-entry into the community would dress in sackcloth and sprinkle ashes to show their repentance.
Today, the custom of distributing ashes to everyone on Ash Wednesday came from imitation of the practice of wearing ashes by public penitents, those who were doing penance for sins such as murder, adultery and the abandonment of a belief or principle.
When these persons completed their public penance, they were able to be re-admitted to communion with the Church – converted, renewed and restored.
We too seek renewal and restoration, absolved from the responsibility of wearing sackcloth to distinguish ourselves as public penitents. But each Ash Wednesday, crossed with that black ashen mark daubed on our forehead, we stand out as scandalous sinner and aspiring saint, both.
For all of us who dare to wear that cross to signal our repentance, Ash Wednesday is a day that demands courage, initiating a season that demands conviction.