Although Ash Wednesday is not a Catholic Holy Day of Obligation, some of the largest crowds of the year will flock to church next Wednesday to receive ashes on their foreheads. How do we explain the popularity of smudging our foreheads with ashes and then walking around all day with dirty faces? It all began with the Hebrew people of the Old Testament. Sackcloth and ashes were commonly worn by the Israelite people as a sign to the rest of the community that they had sinned against God. Earliest records tell us that the tradition of sprinkling ashes on the head was adopted by the Catholic Church in the 10th century as a way of showing to the rest of the congregation that a person had seriously sinned and was committing acts of charity and penance in order to be welcomed back into the church community. Today, the reception of ashes on ones forehead is a reminder to the world that every human person has sinned and is in need of repentance. Ushering in the 40 days of the Lenten Season on Ash Wednesday, Catholics everywhere are reminded of their own mortality as they receive ashes and hear the words of the priest “remember that you are dust and unto dust you will return.” May the ashen cross traced on our foreheads forever be a reminder to us that we are repentant sinners who eagerly anticipate the Resurrection of Christ at Easter.
Don’t look to movies or popular media for your answer because most movies and mainstream media do not believe in the personification of evil. They don’t believe that Satan as a fallen angel exists. They are wrong. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains exorcism as follows: “When the Church asks publicly and authoritatively in the name of Jesus Christ that a person or object be protected against the power of the Evil One and withdrawn from his dominion, it is called exorcism. Jesus performed exorcisms and from him the Church has received the power and office of exorcising. In a simple form, exorcism is performed at the celebration of baptism. The solemn exorcism can be performed only by a priest with the permission of the bishop. The priest must proceed with prudence, strictly observing the rules and prayers established by the Church.” (CCC 1673) The Church holds true that exorcism is directed at the expulsion of demons through the spiritual authority which Jesus entrusted to his Church. It is important for the Church to make clear distinctions between authentic demonic possession and psychological illness before subjecting a soul to the exorcism rite. Signs of mental illness can easily be mistaken for demonic possession and care must be taken to know the difference. Lastly, the Code of Canon Law states that only qualified priests with the express permission given by their local diocesan bishop may perform exorcisms. “The local ordinary is to give permission only to a presbyter who has piety, knowledge, prudence and integrity of life.” (CIC 1171) Please continue to pray for the work of priests, especially our diocesan exorcist that the power of Jesus Christ may drive evil from our world once and for all.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines hell as the state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed (CCC 1033). Hell is not a physical place, but a metaphysical state of being in which one has definitely excluded themselves from God. Jesus often speaks of hell in the Gospels as “gehenna” or the “unquenchable fire” reserved for those who die in a state of un-repented mortal sin. If God made all the heavens and the earth therefore God must have created hell, right? Everything that ever was or is or will be is created by God, including hell (Colossians 1:16). John 1:3 says, “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” God alone has the power to cast someone into hell (Luke 12:5). Jesus holds the keys of death and Hades (Revelation 1:18). In the end we can say that God “created” hell because it is a natural consequence of the choice made by Satan and fallen angels to not serve their creator. God did not “create” hell in the same sense that he created the land, sea, air, water, animals, angels or human beings. Hell exists because Satan and the fallen angels chose not to serve the Creator. God is in hell only in the sense that God is in all of his creation: God created Satan, fallen angels, damned human beings as ultimately good and therefore a portion of God and goodness still exist in them when they are in hell.
The Church affirms the existence of hell from all eternity and yet hell was not an original part of God’s creative plan. Hell is not an invention of God but rather proceeds from the very nature of mortal sin. In the famous parable of Jesus separating the sheep from the goats we hear “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angel.’ (Matthew 25:41) Hell is the result of choices made by Satan, the fallen angels, and sinful people who reject God’s love for eternity. Pope Saint John Paul II in a general audience talk in 1999 said the “hell proceeds from the very nature of mortal sin.” God doesn’t send people to hell; it is something they chose for themselves. In the end, the best answer we have is that God “created” hell because of the natural consequences that arose from mortal sin committed by Satan, fallen angels and sinful human beings. In the Eucharistic Liturgy, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want anyone to go to hell, but all to come to repentance and the eternal life of heaven.
With the gift of being made in the image and likeness of God, every human being has an intellect to know God and a will to choose God. Our human intellect and free will to know and choose the good is what makes us unique and special from the rest of creation. When our first parents, Adam and Eve, were tempted by Satan and disobeyed God’s commandment in the garden and ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, sin entered our world and the possibility of eternal separation from God became a reality. Ultimately, God gives us the freedom to choose to serve him or to choose to serve Satan--but not both.
God is merciful to those who want his mercy. But he doesn’t force himself on us. We have the freedom to choose by the way we live our lives. After we die, if we have chosen by our actions in life to serve Satan, then we belong to him. There is a hell because we have the freedom to choose evil instead of serving God. To choose to not serve God is hell. God didn’t create hell and God doesn’t choose to send us there. That choice is entirely up to us. Our God is the author of love and is merciful and forgiving towards those who are sorry for their sins. Never forget that love is a choice, a decision to lay down one’s life so that others may live. God doesn’t force his love on us, we must ask for it and act upon love in our lives. Heaven is our destiny but God will not force heaven upon anyone, we must ask for it, choose it and live it now.
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