It was April 1945. The women of Ravensbruck whispered the rumors that the war was nearly over. All the years of hard labor, of torture and terror, would soon be behind them. American troops were advancing on Berlin from the west and the Russians from the east. Any moment now, they would be saved. They were skeletons, their malnourshed breasts giddy with hope.
Until they woke up that morning to the sounds of screams and the shouts of the guards. The order had come from the dying Reich that the camp should be emptied of its inhabitants. The orders came for 20,000 to be marched out and the rest gassed and then cremated. In one of the cells, huddled in the gloom of impending death, sat a woman. Whether she was old or young we don't know. How long she had been there, we don't know. Was she a Polish Jew, a faithful Catholic a Gypsy, a lesbian? (For all of them and dozen other groups bore the brunt of Germany's mad rage at Ravensbruck.) We don't know. But what we do know is this: before the guards came to drag her away, she found a piece of paper and a pen and she wrote a prayer. Then she stuffed it into a crack in the wall. This is what she wrote:
Lord, forgive not only the men of good will, but also those of ill will. But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted upon us. Remember rather the fruits we have bought, thanks to this suffering: our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, the courage, the generosity, the greatness of heart that has grown out of this. And when they come to judgment, Lord, let all the fruits we have borne be their forgiveness.
It's Ash Wednesday and those terrible hear words fall hard on our ears: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Someone makes a crude ash cross on our foreheads and then we go off to work or to school or to shop and later, it all seems a little surreal. For we are not dust: we are living, breathing souls, and this whole ancient rite seems a bit overwrought and hysterical. It does not seem to have much meaning in a world that teems with life. Maybe that's why there are so few people in our pews today. This is so very different from our weekly Mass, where the celebrant absolves us of our sins and Alleluias ring off the rafters.
But not today. Today we are looking directly into the eyes of everyone whom we have wronged in ways great and small, but we have done and by what we have failed to do. Our own failings pile up, corpse-like, in the torture chambers of our heart. We count them and we shudder. Did I really do that? Did I really say those things? Is there still that place in my heart that unforgiveness lurks and eats away at my soul? Yes, and yes and yes.
For that is what Ash Wednesday is about. The confrontation with the most difficult of all sins: the sin of religious observance that is all about what we do, rather than who we are. In today's Gospel, Jesus does not condemn fasting or prayer or giving our money to the poor. In fact, he assumes that people who want to live the values of God's Reign will do them. It is the way we do them that brings us the reward we deserve.
If you are here today to get your forehead swiped like a credit card so you can go on about your life with nary a thought of your own sinfulness, then you will receive your reward. You get to leave here, little bits of ash across the bridge of your nose, and you can take satisfaction that everyone who sees you later will know that you are faithful to the old traditions. You will have your reward in full. Go and rejoice in that.
But if you come to the altar today, trembling in deep awareness of the ways in which you have broken relationships, stored up treasure on earth, ignored the call to justice and refused to forgive those who have wronged you, then you will have your reward in full as well. You will dwell in the light of grace and the awareness that the Reign of God is not about what you do, but about who you are. Go and rejoice in that.
For Ash Wednesday is a bit of a divine prank. We are already forgiven of every sin we have committed, every hurt we have caused, every lustful and hateful thought ever to linger in our dreams, before we ever set foot in this place. We don't need a religious rite to receive divine grace. But if we are willing to open ourselves fully to the divine reality that all our accomplishments and all our failures are just so much dust, we can receive the gift of grace as a treasure, a sacrament, a life-giving touch from the One who looks on in secret and forgives.
The prayer of the woman of Ravensbruck was the prayer of someone who had dwelt fully in the reception of her own ashes. She knew that she was about to join the ash pile of human history. Her prayer was as much for her tormentors as it was for all of humanity. Her forgiveness was a sacrifice that rose to highest heaven. When you receive the ashes today, imagine that they are her ashes, for they are, and yours and mine and Jesus'. And you will have your reward in full.