The Ashes of Ukraine

Thomas Griffin 3/2/22

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During Lent all people ought to ask themselves: when real lives are on the line, where does our faith stand?

Images and details regarding the destruction in Ukraine have been overflowing throughout the past week. News channels and social media posts have captured horrifying scenes of pain over the physical dismantling of cities and the tearing apart of families. Apartment buildings have been destroyed along with local businesses and entire blocks. Men have sent their wives and children away while they remain to fight for their country and their freedom. Even an orphanage has received blows from Russian missiles. 

Air raid sirens across large cities and gunshots at train stations have become commonplace for American viewers of the news in Ukraine. All of these details are reminders that war is not to be romanticized and neither is suffering. Lent is meant to bring Catholics into real contact with the offering that Jesus made for the world. Christianity is different from all other religions for this reason: it is not based in philosophy or ideals but in a historical person who suffered tremendously. 

The Christian response to horrendous seasons of life has been the same for two thousand years. We persevere because suffering is not the end and God is with us in our suffering. The darker the moment, the more intense God’s presence. Lent is meant to remind us of these truths, but this year we have concrete access to them because of the ordeal in Ukraine. This year we are asked to view faith as concrete practice rather than merely a mental or “spiritual” exercise.

Too often, the appearances of faith seem to be empty and without meaning, like old gestures that we simply continue today out of respect for our ancestors. Lent is the season that leads up to the remembrance of Jesus (a real person of history) who suffered tremendous agony and pain in his beating and crucifixion. In the shadow of his unspeakable suffering is the emptiness of his grave. Darkness and death do not have the last say.

For this reason, Catholics around the world receive ashes on their foreheads today. As the priest places the ashes on them, he makes the sign of the cross with his thumb and says one of two phrases: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return” or “Turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel.” Both are applicable for our time. 

The deaths that have already taken place in this conflict and the looming possibility of death for the greater world reminds us that life is precious but also passing. Life can rapidly change and it can change for the worse just as quickly as an invasion. Lent’s invitation to ponder our own sin and the sin of the world should not be overlooked. Violence is being implemented with lethal force in Ukraine. Russia has released hundreds of missiles on the land of Ukraine and casualties continue to rise. 

Sin, the choice to make oneself god or the arbiter of right and wrong, has been a part of the human experience since the beginning of humanity. When we misuse our freedom, people are harmed. Putin’s attack on Ukraine is simply an extreme example of what happens when sin is underestimated or ignored. During Lent and throughout the war on Ukraine we can be challenged to sit with the suffering of others in a real way. This is an opportunity to find out just how practical we take our faith.

Does prayer for Ukraine and for peace matter? Are we moved to reform our own lives and be men and women of sacrifice rather than sin? America will continue to be asked to lead the world amidst the destruction occurring in Europe. To do that properly and most effectively we must be at our best, we must be men and women of true faith in God remembering that our country was founded on inalienable rights that are rooted in God’s existence. Once again, we are being asked to remember that faith must be grounded in concrete action.  

The ashes mounting in Ukraine should give us pause as people go towards receiving ashes on their foreheads today. Let the violence that they are enduring not be in vain, let us unite our prayer and sufferings to theirs so that we can show that our faith is rooted in the real world, not just in our minds or on our foreheads. 

Thomas Griffin is the chair of the religion department at a Catholic high school on Long Island where he lives with his wife and son.

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