Fairly often, the four FOCUS Missionaries who are part of our team at the BU Newman Center "table." They set up a table in one of the main buildings on campus and engage students in conversations. It often involves them handing out free cookies to students who are willing to engage in a friendly conversation. This past week, the FOCUS team handed out Mardi Gras beads to students. The Mardi Gras beads had an Ash Wednesday Mass schedule attached.
Tabling is hard work. They are seeking the fallen away, the mildly interested, the uninterested, and even the strongly opposed! Despite the hard work, the missionaries maintain a joyful and fun attitude. On Ash Wednesday, the missionaries were here early and were tabling for the entire day. The last of our Masses for Ash Wednesday was at 8pm and the missionaries were out shaking the trees until the last possible moment.
This year, they had a little competition. While they were tabling in order to encourage people to get to Mass for Ash Wednesday, there were other groups in the same area just distributing ashes. It made it difficult to engage students in conversations about getting to Mass when the tables around them were giving out ashes on the fly. The missionaries who never give even the slightest hint of discouragement were feeling a bit frustrated.
While all of the Masses on Ash Wednesday were well attended, the 8pm was packed. As I looked out at the congregation, I noticed that some of the students already had ashes on their foreheads. It seems that even though they had already received ashes elsewhere, they still came to Mass. While I never had the opportunity to ask any of those people why they came to Mass if they already got their ashes, I suspect that the answer is because of our FOCUS team's efforts.
On Ash Wednesday, I often joke with the congregation that I am letting them in on a very big secret. "These are not magic ashes." In and of themselves, the ashes do nothing except make one's head dirty. The ashes are only an exterior sign of our interior repentance. They are a reminder that I am a sinner who needs God's grace. The ashes are not the sign that "I'm really one of the good people." It's a sign that I am one of the sinners who wants to turn my life around by the grace of God.
On Ash Wednesday, the ashes that we wear are the credentials of our being ambassadors for Christ. Our ashes are a sign of Christ appealing and imploring through us to all whom we encounter, "Be reconciled to God!"
As I looked around at our Masses on Ash Wednesday, I was moved to see hundreds of young men and women, adorned with the mark of repentance. I was moved because I could see in their faces a recognition that they need to repent and be reconciled with God. I was moved because we are all in this together. The prayers of the Ash Wednesday liturgy have strong militaristic overtones to them. They speak about us beginning a campaign together and being armed with the weapons of self-restraint. We are comrades on the field of battle together. Sometimes, we find it difficult to keep up the fight. This is why it is so important to do it together. Maybe we can't always have the energy to fight for ourselves, but that's when we ought to look around and see our comrades who stand with us. We should fast, pray, and give alms not only for ourselves, but also for them. We want to be loyal to those who fight at our side.
Living Lent is great. But, living Lent together is much better. Our sacrifices, fasts, self-denials, prayers, and works of mercy not only benefit us as individuals, they make us a stronger army. They are used by Christ to strengthen us and to draw others to Himself. I am encouraged by living Lent with the students here. Their increased willingness to take up the weapons of the spiritual life during Lent encourages me to stand fast on the field of battle.
On Ash Wednesday, our four FOCUS Missionaries armed themselves with prayer, fasting, and with hearts filled with the joy of the Gospel. Their willingness to stand strong, despite what appeared to be insurmountable conditions, is truly apostolic. Christ wants all to be reconciled to God. When we live Lent together--taking up the spiritual arms that the Lord gives to us--we become His ambassadors. Our lives are then placed at the service of Christ who implores others through us, "Be reconciled to God!"