Thinking about Ash Wednesday 2

By Brother Anthony McDonnell cfc

Naturally enough with the birth of Christianity after the death of Jesus, many Jewish religious traditions, including a deep reverence for the Old Testament writings, became part of the emerging Christian tradition. Prayer, fasting, religious celebrations, pilgrimages to holy places and other religious traditions took on new forms but were still rooted in an ancient past. With time, Christianity evolved its own understanding and interpretation of the Old Testament in the light of the Jesus experience.

Under the influence of Greek culture and philosophy, the Old Testament was read and understood in a very different manner to how it was understood in the Jewish tradition. St Augustine, among others, helped to develop a very literal understanding of the “Fall of Adam & Eve” and the consequence of that event – the curse of being born in a state of alienation from God. Augustine was even more specific indicating that the curse of original sin was transmitted through the human body. Over time, there emerged from this theology a profound dualism that separated the body from the soul, and the spiritual from the corporeal. The body was seen as a source of sin and had to be disciplined and punished to keep it under control. Naturally enough this theology had a profound influence on the meaning and the celebration of Lent.

The Lenten ritual was something that evolved over the first few centuries of the Christian era. The word itself comes from the Anglo-Saxon word lencten meaning Springtide, the season of growth and rebirth. The notion of Springtide, a time of rebirth invites us to reflect on Lent in the light of the new knowledge and understanding that has come to us courtesy of the last few centuries of scientific discovery. What sense can we make of the “sackcloth and ashes” metaphor in the light of the creation story that science has revealed to us.

When we dip into the story of the unfolding universe as told in the New Cosmology we come to realise that dust and ashes are not metaphors for the last stages of a painful existence, but metaphors for new beginnings. In the New Cosmology we learn that the dynamic of the Universe is one of ever increasing complexity. The story began with an unexplained flaring forth of undifferentiated energy in enormous quantities. The remnants of this event can still be seen today in what is called cosmic microwave background radiation. With the first flaring forth of the Universe time and space began. As the radiation spread out into the expanding Universe, it cooled quickly, and as a consequence of the cooling, little grains of matter were seeded out. With time, these little grains of matter coalesced to form atoms of hydrogen and helium that accumulated into vast clouds. Once the clouds of atoms emerged, the Universe got busy building primary stars. Stars are nothing more that enormous clouds of burning atoms, hydrogen for the most part. Due to the power of gravity, stars are shepherded into colonies which the scientists call galaxies. To the best of our knowledge, there could be as many as 500 billion galaxies each in the Universe, with 200 billion or more stars in each galaxy. It’s a big old Universe.

Stars of course are not like angels. They do not live forever. They have a finite life span. Big stars lived a short life as stars go. Small stars will live for trillions of years. Our mother star, the sun, is five billion years old, and will live for another five billion years.

The fact that stars die is not a disaster. The ashes of first generation stars, far from being galactic rubbish, are a precious resource. Perhaps the most wonderful part of the story of stars is that, out of the ashes of dead stars, new stars are resurrected. In the throes of its dying, the star scatters its ashes into the Universe, and the Universe carefully husbands these ashes to generate new stars.

The death of a giant star is celebrated by one of the most glorious sights one could ever see. This extraordinary event is called a supernova. The last supernova event visible to the naked eye occurred in 1604. It is called Kepler’s supernova and its remains are still visible in the sky.


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