A Closer Look: Ash Wednesday and the End of Lent by Kenneth Craycraft
As most Catholics are well aware, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the liturgical season of Lent. And, of course, almost everyone associates Lent with giving something up, even if they do not understand the penitential importance of the season. “I gave that up for Lent” is a common refrain, even among those who do not regularly – or ever – attend church. For many of us, Lent is not a time of spiritual penance and religious discipline, but a chance to start over on our failed New Year’s resolutions.
Perhaps we deny ourselves of some indulgence, knowing that we will return to it when Lent is over. In that case, we look forward to the end of Lent, not because it culminates in Easter, but so we can resume our deprived pleasure. The end of Lent is the return to vice. These practices and attitudes illustrate a failure to appreciate that Ash Wednesday has less to do with the beginning than with the end of Lent.
The Way We Order Our Lives
The Catholic moral life, in contrast to many forms of Protestantism, is less concerned with the primacy of rules and laws, and more concerned with the way that we order our lives toward proper ends and purposes. Rooted in the natural law tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas and his interpreters, Catholic moral theology begins with the fundamental principle that human beings are created to love God as our ultimate good, and to order our lives accordingly. This is sometimes known as “teleological” morality, from the Greek word for “end” (telos), which refers to those moral goals – or ends – that give direction, purpose and meaning to our actions. Thus moral obligations are not dictated by God, but rather emerge from the Church’s reflection on moral actions that can or cannot be ordered toward the end of love and enjoyment of God.
While rules are important, they are only one part of moral reflection; and if we limit ourselves to thinking only in terms of obligations, we will fall well short of the peace and joy that God intends for our moral lives. Rather, as the ultimate end of our lives, God in His perfect love, orders our moral choices toward that love. And as we order our lives toward God, we do not merely obey commands but move deeper and more profoundly toward a flourishing life of joy and beatitude.
But, as the term implies, this “ordering” of our lives toward love of God calls us to develop habits and practices that are consistent with that end. Order doesn’t just happen. It is the result of reflection, deliberation and choice. While we sometimes call actions that are not consistent with our love of God “evil,” the more helpful way of thinking about them is “disordered.”The solution, then, is not to try to “be good,” but rather to reorder our lives toward God.
Accomplishing That Order
“Virtue” is the name we use to describe the habits, practices and characteristics that help us to accomplish that order. Well-ordered lives are always obedient; but obedient lives are not necessarily well-ordered if they are not accompanied by the virtues that cause us to obey in the right way, at the right time, and for the right reasons; that is to say, if they are not ordered toward the proper end of loving God.
And this is why Ash Wednesday has more to do with the end of Lent than its beginning. It is not sufficient merely to “give up” something for Lent if our giving up is not appropriately ordered
toward the proper end of Lenten discipline. Losing weight, cutting down on drinking or stopping smoking are all laudable goals for physical health. But if the deprivations of Lent do not contribute to the habits, practices and disciplines that order our lives toward God, they become ends in themselves, and of little spiritual or moral effect.
The “telos” of Lent—the end that gives direction, purpose, and meaning to our discipline – is to love God more deeply and authentically. And thus, the purpose of the disciplines associated with Lent should be to develop the moral habits and skills –the virtues – that contribute to a life of flourishing obedience, culminating in joyful love of God.
“Repent and believe the Gospel,” says the priest or deacon as he applies the ashes to our heads. This means that, while Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the season of Lent, its chief concern is the end of Lenten discipline.
Kenneth Craycraft is an attorney and the John J. Gardner Family Chair of Moral Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary & School of Theology. He holds a Ph.D. in moral theology from Boston College, and a J.D. from Duke University School of Law