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# Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Dominican Cross Given that tomorrow (Ash Wednesday) begins our season of Lent1, it seems appropriate to me to comment on the Dominican "colors" of black and white.  The friars habit (their outfit) is black and white (well, you might say white and black, depending on your perspective).  The Dominican cross' most distinctive mark is its alternating black and white, and many other derivative insignia use those two colors.

So what's up with these colors?  Were they picked just because they look good together, have great contrast, or what?  Well, they have a meaning.  The black represents penance, and the white represents joy. 

What an odd combination, eh?  After all, isn't penance about being truly sorry for one's sins, turning away from those sins, intending to not sin again, and even doing things to try to make things right (reparation)?  How can you have joy if you're penitent?

The thing is, that penance is really an act of faith, an act of hope.  Without faith and hope, it doesn't make any sense.  If you don't believe in a transcendent, objective Good (i.e., God) from whom the nature of good flows, it is hard to know, concretely, what evil is (essentially a negation/privation of good).  Sin is a moral evil; that is, it is an act that is not in accord with the transcendent, objective Good and thus in some way negates and loses that Good. 

Penance is an act of hope because without hope of forgiveness, of restoration of the good we've deprived ourselves (and sometimes others) of, there'd really be no point in penance.  Why even bother trying to make things right if there is no hope that they can be made right?  It just wouldn't make sense to do that; it'd be a waste of time and energy, and instead we'd just waste away in despair.

But for those who have faith and hope, penance makes a lot of sense.  And its precisely that--that faith and hope--that makes penance essentially an act of joy.  We can take deep consolation and joy in penance because we know that we are making things right through God's grace.  The good that we've lost is restored and then some, and that's where the joy comes in.

So tomorrow starts what we call the penitential season of Lent, about forty days of observing a spirit of penance prior to celebrating that greatest of all days, when God made it possible for us to get things right--Easter.  Tomorrow we get ashes to remind us of our fragility and mortality: "remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return" echoing the words of God spoken to Adam as the consequence of that original sin. 

But the story doesn't end there; if it did, we may as well just do as Job's wife suggested--curse God and die.  No, the story goes on to the redemption of humanity through the Incarnation and atonement that makes it possible for us to restore that original good and in fact to go beyond that to become partakers in that transcendent, supreme Good, that Divine nature. 

So we can with true joy be sorry for our sins and do concrete acts of penance (fasting, abstaining from meat, giving to the poor, visiting the sick, and many others) because we have the end in view; we know the story doesn't end with our screwing things up if only we accept in faith and hope the grace made available to us to make things right.

So I hope that Christians will join me in joy as we celebrate this season of penance looking towards the resurrection of our Lord.  And maybe those who are not will better understand why it is we do what we do. :)

Notes
1. The word "Lent" is from earlier English and Germanic words for spring (because it's around springtime).  "Easter" is another one of those where the Church co-opted an English word for Church use; good symbolism, though--the east, the rising sun, the celebration of the rising of the Son of God.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008 10:56:16 PM (Eastern Standard Time, UTC-05:00)  #    Disclaimer  |  Comments [0]  | 
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