From the ashes come our hope

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By Nancy Kennedy

I know Ash Wednesday has come and gone, and we’re smack in the middle of Lent, but Ash Wednesday is on my mind.

This year I went to two Ash Wednesday services, one in the morning and one at night.

My husband had asked, “Are you that bad?”

Well, last year I had vowed to give up recreational shopping for the 40 days leading up to Easter and I did well until I resisted not the temptation to buy something that I can’t even remember and probably isn’t even in my closet anymore.

This year, not even 24 hours into Lent 2011, on Ash Wednesday no less, I ate cupcakes and Taco Bell and chocolate. Not that I had given them up. It just seems like I should’ve eaten leeks and kale and undercooked rice.

So, yeah. I’m that bad.

However, the morning Ash Wednesday service was work-related and not even at my own church, and I didn’t get ashes smeared on my face at that one, but I did at the evening service at my church. That service was not work-related, but was for the good of my soul, although the morning service did my soul good, too.

Kids from the local Catholic school were there at the morning service, and the priest told a story about an old man, a great sinner, who boasted that he had sinned so much that only the pope himself could absolve him.

One day the man went to the pope to confess his sins.

The priest who told the story stopped and asked the school kids, “What happened after the man’s sins were forgiven by the pope?”

One of the kids answered, “He sinned more,” and everybody laughed.

The correct answer, however, was: “He was given penance to do.”

Another kid thought the pope made him say “a million Hail Marys,” but the pope told the man to go home and read his Bible every day and learn from Jesus what to do.

The man had a lame excuse for why he couldn’t do that, so the pope gave him other penances, such as go to Mass every day, say prayers, or give money to the poor instead of buying lottery tickets. With each penance, the man gave an excuse.

Finally, the pope gave him a ring and told him to read the inscription every day: “Jesus loves me.” That, he could do. So, every time he read it and pondered the message he ended up doing the very things the pope had given him to do for penance in the first place — and he did them willingly.

Here’s the deal. We go to the priest or the minister or a friend and confess our sins. We make vows and promises to God to fast or give things up and repent and tell God we don’t want to sin anymore and that we want to do good.

Maybe we try hard and manage to be religious for a while, but then, like the one student said, we sin more.

Even our best efforts, the most religious things we do, have no power in and of themselves to change us. Maybe the old man knew that, although he most likely was the type who looks for loopholes and easy ways out. He liked his sin.

But those who sincerely desire to follow the commandments of God, especially out of a sense of guilt or duty, eventually burn out, give up or dial the commandments down to make them more manageable.

However, those who, instead, first look at the inscription on the ring, who first gaze upon the cross, who ponder the message “Jesus loves me” will find themselves responding with a desire to follow and obey.

“Jesus loves me” always comes before “I will do what you ask.”

With that on my mind, I approached the second Ash Wednesday service where we sang, “Come ye weary, heavy laden, bruised and broken by the fall; if you tarry ’til you’re better, you will never come at all. Not the righteous … sinners Jesus came to call.”

There again was the message: “Jesus loves me,” and I didn’t need to come with promises of giving something up or gritting my teeth and making a vow to God out of a sense that I should.

Instead, I promised myself to keep remembering that Jesus loves me and that as I do, changes will come.

Nancy Kennedy is the author of “Move Over, Victoria — I Know the Real Secret,” “Girl on a Swing,” and her latest book, “Lipstick Grace.”