There’s an old joke I learned when I was back in music school: “How do you get to Broadway from here?” The answer: “Practice, practice, practice.”
It’s easy to think when we hear people playing music, painting a picture or photographing something, reading a poem or acting on stage, that this is mostly spontaneous, a passing inspiration that takes shape out of nowhere and comes out naturally, immediately. Art done well always gives us this impression. What we don’t see is beyond the talent that makes things possible, there’s a lot of hard work and development of craft. We put everything into what we’re doing and try to make it as perfect as we can, even though we know perfection is impossible, but we try anyway because we respect what we’re doing and we respect the people we’re going to share the fruits of our labors with. And when it’s done and everything’s put out there, we’re happy for a moment and then we go on with something new to work on.
Our lives are works of art. We’ve given a special gift, Life, a treasure in itself, but we also want to make things better, make ourselves better, and sometimes it means taking something away just as a sculptor chips away at a boulder to make a statue. It can mean starting over a few times, it can mean disciplining ourselves. We know we can’t be perfect, but we want to be better. It takes discipline and self-control, it means putting aside distractions such as superficial needs and sometimes giving up something we like a lot. Lent isn’t a time we earn God’s favor or our status in heaven, it’s a time we remember Christ’s overpowering and saving love for us and use that inspiration to become the best artists of living we can be. Lent doesn’t end with Mercy, it starts with Mercy, and because of that Mercy we can turn away from sin and become the art we should be.
In hope, we start the season of Lent. We don’t have to earn our value with God by our Lenten practices, God already loves us and wants to draw us in. Lent helps us finish God’s creation: through prayer, fasting and charity, we grow in the art of living fully human lives. We particularly grow in that great skill of compassion, which we’re given by Christ and develop under His care as we make this journey. Walking this journey of Lent is not only about being at peace with God, it’s about being who we’re meant to be, the best artists of Life possible. Receiving the ashes is a sign of commitment to our journey, ourselves, our lives and our God.