Ashes mark beginning, not end, of new life, says theologian

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Ash Wednesday and Lent are a time to recall that new life emerges from the ashes and that spring blossoms from the bleakness of winter, said a noted Italian theologian.

And when people fast from media overload, as Pope Francis has asked people to do for Lent, they should be directing their attention to the real people around them, Servite Father Ermes Ronchi told Vatican News Feb. 16.

Instead of being “glued” to the internet, “what if we were to look people in the eye the way we look at our phones, 50 times a day, looking at them with the same attentiveness and intensity, how many things would change? How many things would we discover?” he asked.

The Italian priest, who was chosen by Pope Francis to lead his annual Lenten retreat in 2016, talked with Vatican News about how to understand Lent and Ash Wednesday during a global pandemic, particularly when many people have already lost so much.

He recalled the natural cycles in farm life when wood ashes from heating homes over a long winter would be returned to the soil to provide it with important nutrients for the spring.

“Ashes are what is left when nothing is left, it is the bare minimum, the almost-nothing. And it is from here that one can and must begin again,” he said, rather than stopping in despair.

Ashes smudged or sprinkled on the faithful are then “not so much about ‘remember you must die,’ but ‘remember you must be simple and fruitful.’”

The Bible teaches “the economy of small things” in which there is nothing better than to be “nothing” before God, he said.

“Do not be afraid of being fragile but think of Lent as the transformation from ashes to light, from what is leftover to fullness,” he said. “I see it as a time that is not penitential, but alive, not a time of mortification, but as revitalization. It is the time the seed is in the earth.”

For those who have suffered great loss during the pandemic, Father Ronchi said that strain and struggle also leads to new fruit, like a gardener who prunes trees “not for penance,” but “to bring them back to the essential” and stimulate new growth and energy.

“We are living in a time that can bring us back to the essential, rediscovering what is permanent in our life and what is fleeting. Therefore, this moment is a gift to be more fruitful, not to castigate.”

No matter what measures or restrictions may be in place due to the pandemic, people still have all the tools they need, which no virus can take away: charity, tenderness and forgiveness, he said.

“It’s true that this Easter will be marked by fragility, many crucifixes, but what is being asked of me is a sign of charity,” he added. “Jesus came to bring a revolution of tenderness and forgiveness without bounds. These are the two things that build up universal fraternity.”

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