Home Spirituality Life On Purpose In the horror on Ash Wednesday, a powerful symbol of hope

In the horror on Ash Wednesday, a powerful symbol of hope

Parents wait for news after a reports of a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Feb. 14, 2018. Photo: AP /Joel Auerbach

It was only the first day of Lent, but it felt like Good Friday.

I was planning on writing this column about the benefits of embracing Lent- since the season began this past week on Ash Wednesday. But then the school shooting happened in Florida.

And all hell broke loose — literally — and it there are no words.

How does one make sense of senseless and violent evil?

My television and phone were off for most of Ash Wednesday. But when I went to check emails and messages later that day, I saw a friend’s post from Florida and the rest is the unfortunate and marred history.

My husband and I want to live with as little government intervention as possible because we’ve seen first-hand how it complicates the lives it aspires to help. Still, in a just society, we need to protect and care for the needy and vulnerable in our midst. To live in a civil society, we need clear laws and boundaries to protect people from enemies seeking to hurt us.

My husband and I say it every time one of these violent shootings happen. Why isn’t gun ownership treated — and regulated — like driving and car ownership?

A car is a dangerous weapon in the hands of an unlicensed driver, and in an unsafe car. And there are different licenses for different kinds of transportation. I’m great at driving a mini-van and I can even manage a trailer hooked on the back. But if I got behind the wheel of a semi-trailer truck or a high-performance vehicle that hits 120 mph, we’d all be in danger for our lives.

So why is gun licensing, registration and background checks a big deal? Couldn’t we even do it through the DMV or at a special department in county buildings around the country? And why are semi-automatic weapons available to civilians?

I just don’t get it. There are alot of questions and very little answers. They pale in the face of the dead and grieving victims of this most recent high school shooting.

I am a very empathic person and I sometimes have to guard my heart and mind or the pain of others can level me emotionally. Mass casualties are hard to process because our psyche does not want to believe it’s really happening and because we’ve been desensitized in movies and in real life.

Still, I don’t ever want to stop caring and praying for others or advocating for laws and civil practices that respect the value of every human life.

The photo above, emerging early from the trauma, spoke to my heart and has helped me to connect and pray for the victims, their families and even for the teenage shooter.

The old adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words” fits this photo perfectly.

I was practicing my Catholic faith when this tragedy unfolded. I am a professional cantor so Sundays and holy days are very busy for me. It is also my joy. For Catholics the world over, Ash Wednesday marked the beginning of 40 Days of fasting and prayer, following the example of Jesus, who spent 40 days in fasting and prayer, as He battled temptations from the devil.

My heart sank when I turned on the news as the details were being confirmed by local law enforcement in real time. Then I saw this photo flashed up on the TV screen and I felt an instant connection to the sobbing women in an embrace.

I felt a connection to them as women and I wondered if they were mothers waiting to hear from the kids and hold them in their arms. Or did they already know their children were dead?

It was a natural tie of womanhood that drew me to them. But the connection ran deeper than our humanity — and higher — because of the cross.

A large black smudge of ashes, quite visibly in the sign of the cross, marked one of the grieving women’s foreheads as she held the other woman, who was collapsed in tears in her arms.

The sign of that cross broke the anonymity of this tragedy for me and caused a piercing pain in my heart which, honestly, I didn’t want to feel.

Because of the cross, I knew where this woman had been at the beginning of this horrendous day. She, like me, had come forward from a church pew — as a sign of faith — to face a reminder that this mortal life will pass away. As her forehead was marked with ashes in the sign of the cross, she heard these words: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. Repent and believe in the Gospel.”

The ashes are reminiscient of an Old Testament tradition of the wearing of sackcloth and ashes in the Book of Esther and the Book of Job. The ashes are a symbol of mourning, repentance and penance- a call to turn away from sin and turn back to God.

The ashes made into the sign of the cross, marked on the forehead of believers, are also a sign of hope.

It was this sign of the cross in ashes, marked on the grieving woman’s forehead that drew me to care deeply for their pain and the suffering of all the victims of this violent tragedy.

On that cross, an innocent man who was God, spread out His arms and died for all of our sins- for the young and old, for the faithful and even for the criminal who hung on the cross next to Christ.

The criminal, acknowledging that he himself was serving justly for his crimes, recognized something in Jesus which religious and Roman leaders, neighbors and would be followers, failed to see.

The criminal saw in Jesus a Savior behind this mortal sorrrow as he uttered his last earthly request to the God who hung beside him on the cross: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”(Luke 23:42). He intuitively knew the inheritance of Jesus was eternal life and as a criminal he begged for mercy and a share.

To the criminal Jesus offered His first prophetic words of promise and redemption, for all humanity, from the cross- “Truly I tell you, this day you will be with Me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)

Shortly after the last mass shooting in Florida, two years ago, I was moved profoundly by the pictures of the victims when as I stood in front of a memorial. It was putting names on faces that moved me to deeper compassion for their pain. This photo of the weeping women moved me much like the pictures of 49 victims, only I knew that they were dead.

That visit to the memorial changed the way I pray during these tragedies. I try now to connect my mind and my heart to the faces of real people and real pain and do what I can — if even only in prayer — to ease their pain.

I don’t know the story behind the woman marked with the sign of the cross, or the sobbing woman collapsed in her arms but I know the pain of grief and sorrow. And I know the sign on her forehead is our reason and the solution to have hope.

This tragedy has changed their days forever. And it now sets the tone for my 40 days of fasting and prayer. As I struggle through daily disciplines of fasting, prayer and almsgiving, I will keep her face in mind. I’ll offer up Lent for these women and pray that they find solace in the cross so that maybe 40 days from now they may find some joy and comfort in Easter — in Jesus’ rising from the dead.

Catholics everywhere began our Ash Wednesday liturgy with a prayer we call the “Collect”. The emphasis is on the first syllable and it’s pronounced “call-ect”- as in a universal call to prayer. This year’s collect was a prophetic call to all of us who profess to be believers:

Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting
this campaign of Christian service,
so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils,
we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

May we take up the battle cry and seek the victory — over our selfish lives, judgmental ways of thinking, speech and actions — through fasting and prayer, with acts of justice and arms of mercy, all because of the cross.

Eileen Benthal
Eileen is a writer, speaker and wellness coach with a bachelor’s degree in theology from Franciscan University. She and her husband Steve live in Jamesport and have four young adult children. Email Eileen