March 6 is Ash Wednesday
As a Christian celebration Ash Wednesday is about conversion – coming to see life differently and acting accordingly. It introduces Lent, a period of introspection and review of one’s personal life. But personal lives can never be separated from relationships, not only with family and friends but with workmates, fellow citizens, fellow human beings and with the world of which we are part. For people who want a better world, conversion is always on the agenda.
The symbol of ashes certainly points to a wider agenda than the narrowly individual. In Australia we associate ashes, and indeed Ash Wednesday itself, with catastrophic bushfires that take lives, destroy livelihood and devastate forests. They are caused by and intensify global warming. Ashes also recall what is left after war comes to villages and nations – the mingled remains of incinerated buildings, weapons and human beings. Ashes are what remains at Ground Zero, whether at Hiroshima or the World Trade Centre.
Ashes, too, stand for personal hopes that have been destroyed and loves that have been betrayed, for paths once open that have been blocked, for seeds of humanity that have died on germination, for civility that have been crushed by barbarism and creativity by despair. They stand for the treaties disregarded, the genocides unprevented, the civic conversations gone feral, the land and sea turned toxic and the green fields made desert.
Ashes are also places where possibility can arise. From the ash of bushfires grass and plants spring green. On a bomb-levelled city a better place for its citizens can be built. Out of a scorched relationship wisdom and compassion can grow. When we attend to the ashes of our lives and our world, we can recognise their causes and change our way of life.
Conversion is the call and the business of Jesuit Social Services. At its heart are relationships. In our work building relationships with vulnerable people, whose trust and hopes have often been turned to ash, is central. Through faithful relationships wounded people can grow in confidence and self-respect and can make connections with society.
These relationships, however, are built on the quality of our relationship with family, friends and with our companions in Jesuit Social Services. Those relationships, too, of course are sprinkled with ashes that we must recognise and build on for our own and others’ growth.
Both we and the people with whom we work are deeply affected by the quality of relationships built into society and its institutions. When societies and their leaders put profit over people, demonise minority groups and treat vulnerable and troubled people punitively, they turn hope to despair and connection to resentment. Conversion involves looking coolly at our society and the way in which relationships within it, including our own, are distorted by inequality, intolerance and greed. It also alerts us to the ways in which we benefit from injustice and inequality. That recognition builds empathy with people who are marginalised.
In a world that is so threatened by its exploitation for private gain, our relationship to the environment is of central importance. The ashes blown from a world made desert threaten to suffocate us. The effects of pollution always harm most seriously people who are most disadvantaged. They are the people whom we serve. They call us to reflect on how in our personal, domestic, working and public lives we contribute to the marring, and how to the saving, of our world.
Fossicking among the ashes we shall find patches where seeds can be planted and grow green.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.