On a Wednesday six weeks ago, we received ashes. We started Lent, reminded of our mortality.  As “earthlings,” we’re going to return to the earth. And there’s something else: an inner stirring to embrace Christ’s promise – we’re more than earthlings if only we live in self-sacrificing love as he did.

Those ashes prompted me to re-read “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” It’s a short story by the Catholic author, Flannery O’Connor, about a self-absorbed grandma living in Georgia with her son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren. She’s a difficult person, constantly squabbling with them. She objects to their decision to vacation in Florida but goes with them anyway, nitpicking all the way.

Unfortunately, they have an accident and the car rolls over into a gully. At this same time, an escaped criminal, The Misfit, is on the run with his two buddies. They cross paths with grandma’s family in the ditch. Tragically, The Misfit and his companions kill each of them and finally only grandma is left, alive and alone with The Misfit.

Faced with certain death, grandma’s goodness shines forth. She abandons her crabby self. She reaches out with compassion. She actually speaks kindly to him. She tells him that he’s from a good family. She even calls him her son and rests her hand on his shoulder.

He recoils and shoots her.  Then turning to his companions, The Misfit observes, “She would have been a good woman if there had been someone there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

Back to those ashes we received six weeks ago – they are the shooter for us. Made more conscious through them that our death is certain, they’re meant to jolt us out of our lethargic, crabby, sinful, self-righteous self. They’re meant to deepen the awareness of our mortality so that we’ll resolve to live out of the immortal goodness of the person we have been created to be. The Misfit awakened goodness in grandma at the “now” of her certain death. He might have said what we heard, “You are dust, grandma, and now, into dust you’re going to return.”

Reminded that we shall all return to the earth from which we were created, the reading for Ash Wednesday from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians quietly tells us what we already know.  This is the moment to embrace goodness. “Now is the acceptable time. Now is the moment of salvation.” (2nd Corinthians 6:2)

Most of us resolved once again to spend the “now” of this Lent being what we profess to be – Christ-like, good, and loving people. Nudged once again by the realization that this could be our last moment, we may have resolved to fast and pray as Jesus did for 40 days in the desert.

Through fasting, proclaims Operation Rice Bowl (a Catholic Relief Services activity for Lent), our true selves mirror the compassion of the Lord for the marginalized and the poor. “What you give up for Lent changes lives. Give $40 for chickens that provide protein-rich eggs. Give $80 for a baby goat to provide milk and income. Give $150 for a household garden for nutrition. Fast. Pray. Reflect. Give.”  (CRS Rice Bowl 2024)

Many may have let the Ash Wednesday wake-up call guide them to the 58th chapter of Isaiah.
The fast I choose is to loosen the bonds of injustice,
To free those who are oppressed.
To refrain from pointing the finger,
To cease speaking evil.
To offer food to the hungry.

Reflecting on all of this, we must admit that there is one big difference between the story of the shooter and the account of the ashes. We’re still here. Grandma isn’t. We can revisit the past 40 days of Lent. Grandma can’t.

And looking back, we might conclude that we missed the opportunity to “Do it now!”  As the 40-day moment of Lent wore on, human nature intervened. We slid back into routine religion rather than the grace-filled and radical transformation to a true and loving self. In the back of our minds, we might hear The Misfit’s haunting phrase – they would have been really good people – if only someone had been there to put ashes on their forehead every minute of their life. 

Perhaps that’s why, now that we’re at Easter, we hear at the Easter Sunday Mass a startling reading from Paul’s letter to the Colossians. It forces us to meditate on the condition of our being. “Remember that you have died….  When Christ your life appears, then you too will appear with him in glory.” (Colossians 3:4)

Having made it to Lent’s “finish line” we discover through this reading that there is no finish line.  Even more, we discover that in doing Lent we’ve been doing Easter all along – breaking out of the shell of self-centeredness, sin, and death, through the grace of God, into the glorious, indescribable goodness and love of the Risen Christ.

That is what we truly celebrate at Easter – the resurrection of the One in whom we find the meaning of life, right here and right now. Jesus did not need a reality check, as grandma did, in order to abandon sinfulness and embrace goodness. He is the alpha and the omega of goodness.  Jesus did not need ashes in order to discover the light of life in the darkness of the tomb. He is the beginning and the end of light.

In that goodness and in that light, he has completely forgiven our lack of both. What’s more, through his self-sacrificing love on Good Friday he has brought us to the fullness and beauty of his glorious Easter life. In that belief we proclaim with joyful voice – he is risen.

In your goodness and His, may you have a blessed Easter. He is truly risen.

Fr. Tom Zurcher, CSC


Author: Rev. Thomas K. Zurcher, C.S.C.
Published: March 22, 2024

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