Everybody likes free stuff. I make every effort to get to Chipotle when they are giving out burritos. Brad and I both stop religiously at the fancy lotion stores in the mall for a free squirt. I have even regretfully partaken in the free stuff promised at time share presentations. When faced with the odd fact that Catholics who rarely darken the doorstep of their Church on Holy Days or even Sundays come on Ash Wednesday in droves, some I know joke that it’s because we’re giving something away for free. (This line of thinking also explains Palm Sunday.) Though it’s good for a chuckle, this obviously cannot be the answer. Getting ashes is not like getting a free trial-sized latte at McDonald’s. Nor can the ashes be considered some kind of status symbol for folks. It’s not exactly cool to be Catholic these days. And I would even argue that simple “Catholic guilt” doesn’t explain it, given the array of other teachings people freely reject.
I think they come because there is something within us that longs to hear the words of the imposition: “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” or “turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel”. We live in a culture that continually tells us that we need to strive for the here and now: to look good, make money, have fun, and do whatever seems right to us. We are told that all paths eventually lead to God, and that as long as we follow our hearts, no one will go to hell. I think Ash Wednesday reminds us that there is a place deep inside even those farthest from God that just doesn’t buy it.
CS Lewis makes a great case for this natural law in our hearts in the beginning of Mere Christianity. No one holds up laziness or selfishness or greed as a virtue. We all want to be seen by others as dilligent, caring and generous, and when we are caught doing otherwise, we make arguments not that laziness is actually a good thing, but for all the ways that we were not actually being lazy in the given situation. Lewis points out that we will get mad at a man who means to trip us and fails, but not at one who does so by accident. Also, even the pickpocket gets angry when his own goods are stolen. Our culture can feed us all the relativistic garbage it wants. It just does not pan out.
The other side of the natural law inside us is that we all recognize that though we want to do what is right, we rarely do it. We cut corners, take the easy way out. In a word, we sin. This is what Lent is all about. It reminds us that yes, there is more to life than this world. We are sinners who will one day die and face our maker. Luckily, the other part of Lent is the great mercy of God. We cannot be the people we long to be without supernatural help. Lent is about emptying ourselves enough to allow that merciful savior in to give us that aid that we desperately need, and aid He gives totally free.