Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Ash Wednesday after Auschwitz

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Ash Wednesday after Auschwitz

Article excerpt

In the Spring of 2003, I was organizing a symposium on the Holocaust to be held at the Catholic university where I teach. As the proposed speakers and I were attempting to find an agreeable date for the conference, I glanced at my calendar and immediately ruled out one of the days under discussion: Ash Wednesday. The thought of a largely Catholic audience showing up with ashes on their foreheads as the panel discussed the murder and cremation of millions of Jews in the Holocaust was simply too gruesome to contemplate. What can Ash Wednesday mean after Auschwitz?

By way of an answer, this essay will begin with a consideration of the Catholic Ash Wednesday liturgy, focusing especially on its scriptural readings. Second, it will show how these might be illuminated by two other texts featuring dust and ashes, namely, the Expulsion story in Genesis 3 and Job's last speech in the Book of Job. Finally, it will consider how the meaning of death changed with the twentieth century's capacity for inflicting mass annihilation. The thesis is that Ash Wednesday should remind Catholics not simply of their own mortality but also of the power humans now have for murder on a massive scale. The day issues a call both to repent of how that power was used in the Holocaust and to be vigilant that it not be used in such a way ever again.

Celebrating Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent. On this day each year, Catholics as well as other Christians around the world gather to inaugurate forty days of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. Ash Wednesday is not a Holy Day of Obligation; in other words, attendance at Mass on this day is not incumbent upon the faithful. Nevertheless, at least in the United States, on Ash Wednesday churches draw large congregations, and pews are filled with those wishing to offer gestures of repentance for their sins.

Ash Wednesday is a day designated for fasting and abstinence. The meaning of those terms varies, but in the United States anyone between the ages of eighteen and fifty-nine is asked to eat only one full meal during the day, and, in addition, those fourteen and older are asked to abstain from eating meat. (1) All the faithful are urged to use the period of Lent, which begins with Ash Wednesday, to increase their efforts in prayer, self-denial, and works of mercy.

There is no requirement that the celebration of Ash Wednesday take place during a Mass. The liturgical norms stipulate that ashes can be given apart from a eucharistic celebration, though the ashes should not be imposed apart from a service in which the day's scriptural portions are read. Those readings, which do not vary from year to year, include Joel 2:12-18; 2 Cor. 5:20-6:2; and Mt. 6:16, 16-18. Several themes bind these texts together, the most important of which is the need for hearers to be reconciled to God. Underlying each of the readings one also finds a common assumption about history, namely, that events have a meaning determined by God and that things will go well for those who do what God has commanded.

In the first reading, the Book of Joel urges hearers to repent and to return to God in fasting, weeping, and mourning. If the hearers do so, the text promises, God might remove the scourge (whether it is locusts or invading armies is unclear) that has befallen them. Repentance must come first: "Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD your God" (from Joel 2:12-13a). (2) Then comes the possibility of reward: "Perhaps he [the Lord] will again relent and leave behind him a blessing ..." (from Joel 2:14a). The people's efforts are apparently successful, as the reading concludes: "Then the Lord was stirred to concern for his land and took pity on his people" (from Joel 2:18).

In the second reading, Paul appeals to the followers of Jesus in Corinth for repentance. …

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