The Triumph of New Life Over Death


The English language word “Lent” is derived from the old English “lengthen”. It refers to a time of the year (at least in the northern hemisphere) when the hours of sunlight lengthen, the temperature rises, the snows of winter melt away and we have a time of new life, spring.

Just as during Lent/spring we see signs of new life springing from green grass, trees and flowers…so by the end of Lent our eyes of faith see the glorious new life of Jesus after his death and resurrection, Easter. And this triumph of new life over death is promised to all of us!!!

But before the triumph of new life at Easter, we learn a great lesson on the first day of Lent from the ceremony of Ash Wednesday ie. we will all die, but then we will all live a new life.  The early Romans influenced a part of the Ash Wednesday ceremony.

Not unlike the parades our society organizes to honour athletes such as professional hockey players who have won the NHL championship, the Romans staged great parades for the generals of triumphant armies.

To prevent such victorious generals from becoming arrogant or attempting to seize political power, the Romans arranged for a slave to travel directly behind the general during the victory parade. As the crowds cheered, the slave repeatedly reminded the general that he was a mortal, not a god. This is a lesson for all of us.

On Ash Wednesday, Christians take this Roman lesson and use it in a new ceremony to deepen our belief in new life after death. How is this done? The palms used in last year’s Palm Sunday church parade, which were used to recreate the joyful parade of Jesus into Jerusalem before his crucifixion, were burned after the parade.

These palm ashes were stored away and then brought out for the present year’s Ash Wednesday ceremony. At this time, a priest dips his thumb into a container of the palm ashes. Recalling the words of Genesis 2:7 where God created humans “from the dust of the ground”, the priest draws a small cross on our forehead and says a variation of the words “Remember you are made from dust an]]d to dust you shall return. “

The ashes remind each of us of our own eventual death. The cross on our forehead reminds us of the death of Jesus on a cross. But just as Jesus rose to a new life after his death, so shall we.  This promise to us of a new life is why Easter is the best “Good News” in our life.

To thank God for this greatest gift perhaps we should remember the words and music of Handel’s “Messiah” and sing a joyful  “Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah”!

Richard Grover is a retired history and religion teacher from St. Paul's High School in Winnipeg.

  • Peter Bisson, SJ
    Posted at 14:17h, 13 April Reply

    Thank you Richard!

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