Our Gospel reading this week continues with Jesus’ early public ministry. Those in the synagogue hear him and are amazed at his teachings because of the authority with which he teaches, though there is no apparent recognition of Jesus as the Christ. Yet an unclean spirit that was in a man does recognize Jesus, asking if Jesus has come to destroy the spirit. When the unclean spirit leaves the man at Jesus’ command, the other people in the synagogue who witness this are further amazed, saying, “He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.”
Obey – such a small, but powerful word. Say it repeatedly and it becomes an odd sounding word. The Latin origins center around “toward, in the direction of” and “to hear.” In other words, we are to move in the direction of what we hear. In the Gospel today, the unclean spirit hears Jesus say to come out of the man, and the unclean spirit moved in that direction. Should we be even more eager to move as the Lord directs? Of course.
During my ordination there was a moment when I knelt before the archbishop. I raised my hands up, held together as in prayer. The archbishop then placed his hands around mine and asked, “Do you promise respect and obedience to me and my successors?” to which I responded, “I do.” I vowed my obedience to him who has the teaching authority of the Church, the Body of Christ. What I hear from the archbishop, I move in that direction.
I mention all this because Ash Wednesday is not far away. As with so many things, the pandemic is altering the way ashes are to be distributed. A year ago, February, as part of my outside ministry as chaplain for the Michigan Freedom Center at Detroit Metropolitan airport, I distributed ashes to 200 – 300 travelers passing through the airport. With ashes on my thumb, I made the sign of the cross on their forehead and said, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Off they went to wherever their destination might have been that day, sharing a visible sign of faith with everyone they encountered along the way.
However, as you may have read in a recent issue of Detroit Catholic wherein an article from the Catholic News Service was republished, this year the procedures for Ash Wednesday remove the physical contact used in the past. The instructions state that after blessing the ashes and sprinkling them with holy water in silence, the priest is to recite just once either “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”. At that point the priest—or his delegate—will distribute ashes to those who come to him by sprinkling the ashes on each person’s head without saying anything more.
While the article states this sprinkling is how ashes are distributed in Europe, it is certainly out of the norm for Detroit. But this is how we have been instructed to distribute ashes as we start Lent this year. As odd as it may seem, I will obey. And may we all be blessed through obedience.
In the peace of Christ,