“Remember, man, that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
On the first day of Lent we heard these words (adapted from Genesis 3:19) spoken as a priest dipped his thumb in ash and made the sign of the cross on our foreheads. They served as an outward sign of an inner penance and a symbol of mortality. We wore those ashes for the remainder of the day, or at least until they rubbed off. Wherever we went and whatever we did, we were witnesses to the faith. Those who saw us know that we have been baptized into the death of Jesus Christ and hope to share in His resurrection.
More people attend Ash Wednesday mass than Christmas or even Easter, the holiest day of the year. That alone is impressive, but more impressive is the fact that it’s not even a Holy Day of Obligation. We are obliged to attend Sunday mass and a handful of special occasions, but that rarely guarantees universal or even majority attendance. A recent survey found that only a third of those who identify themselves as Catholic attends mass weekly. Yet a great many of the remaining two-thirds will take time out of their work day to attend a morning or midday Ash Wednesday mass to receive ashes.
Why do people make such special efforts? Would we still attend if we didn’t have something to show for it? Are we publicly displaying our piety, real or pretended, seeking the admiration of men?
That seems unlikely in today’s postmodern world. Popular culture makes little room for public acts of asceticism. Prudence, temperance, piety, self-control, and chastity are unlikely to make one popular at parties. Much emphasis is placed on shallow measures of beauty, hedonistic behavior, and reckless consumption.
Why, then, do so many people attend Ash Wednesday mass? What draws us in from our busy lives to embrace stillness and simplicity? Let us explore some of the meanings of Ash Wednesday and Lent and try to understand what the Church is trying to teach us this Lenten season.
Sin entered the world when man desired the ability to determine good and evil for himself rather than trust the Lord, his creator (c.f. Genesis 3). Man abused God’s trust and separated himself from the Lord. Man could have lived in perfect harmony with God but chose to rebel, so he was no longer fit to be in God’s presence. From that point on, we would bear the wounds of that rebellion – suffering and death.
How does Ash Wednesday fit into this? The ashes remind us of our mortality. We gather together and acknowledge that none is perfect and we all deserve death and eternal separation from God for our sins. The solemnity also serves to usher in the liturgical season of Lent. Just as Advent prepares us to celebrate the Incarnation at Christmas and anticipate the second coming of Christ, during Lent the Church helps the faithful prepare for the remembrance of the great sacrifice and victorious resurrection of Christ at Easter and our own resurrection.
The sacrifice of Good Friday and the triumph of Easter are made present for the Church in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the sacrament of our redemption. Jesus gave His flesh to save and sustain us. In order to receive this sacrament worthily, we fast and, if necessary, confess our mortal sins. Each time we receive the Eucharist, we recall our Lord’s passion. If we prepare ourselves for the Eucharist with repentance and fasting, surely we should do likewise for Easter, hence Lent.
Starting with Ash Wednesday, Lent is a season lasting forty days and ending with Holy Saturday. The six Sundays of Lent are not counted in the forty days because every Sabbath recalls Easter and is a time for joy and worship, rather than self-denial and self-deprivation. Why forty days? Forty is an important number in Scripture. It represents purification and fullness of time or number. There are numerous examples of the use of forty in Scripture. Some notable ones are the great flood (Genesis 6 and 7), the time Moses spent on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:27-28), the desert wandering (Numbers 32:10-13), and Israel’s subjugation by the Philistines (Judges 13:1).
The Old Testament Scripture that may be the most relevant to the observation of Lent is the story of Jonah and the repentance of Nineveh. Jonah informed the people of Nineveh that the Lord would destroy them in forty days if they did not repent. Jonah did not expect them to heed the warning, but they did. Every one of them fasted and wore sackcloth. The king ordered the whole nation to cry mightily to God and to turn from their evil ways (Jonah 3:4-10). Like the citizens of Nineveh, we repent of our sins and pray for God’s mercy.
While the Scriptures of the old covenants (Noah, Abraham, and Moses) are rich with symbolic use of the number forty and inspirations for Lent, the second person of the Trinity Himself gives us the best example to follow. Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness without food. The devil tempted him with worldly goods and power, but He did not succumb. We would do well to learn from His example that “man shall not live by bread alone” – gadgets, cars, fancy clothes – “but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”, to worship and serve the Lord alone, rather than the idols of money, power, and popularity, and not tempt God or become presumptuous of His mercy in our apathy and rebelliousness.
During Lent the Church helps her members to seek to die to self and open themselves up to grace. We embrace repentance. That is we seek to restore a right relationship with God. We know, of course, that we have already received the mercy of sanctifying grace, through which we are saved by Jesus Christ and made acceptable in God’s sight. Through baptism “the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). However, though we are no longer accountable for the sin of our remote progenitors, we are still fallen creatures and our relationship with God is damaged. Like a spouse who has been hurt by adultery, forgiveness comes long before trust. Lives must change. Promises must be kept. It is not enough to recognize and confess sin. We must turn from it, be sorrowful because of it, willing to repair the damage done to relationships by it, and resolute to avoid it in the future.
God, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and burning with love for us, wishes for us to return to Him with our whole hearts. We should assemble ourselves, from the youngest to the oldest, and fast, weep, and mourn for our sins. Then He shall have mercy on us. (Joel 2:12-19)
Lenten practices have changed and developed over time. Current teaching is to observe a fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Also, on those days and all Fridays of Lent, we are to abstain from eating the meat of warm-blooded animals. It is also customary to give up something cherished as a sacrifice. Some people give up favorite foods. Others avoid idols in their lives, such as television. A few donate time or money to charities. Fasting helps us to focus on the Lord. Sacrifice helps us to gain control of our desires. Charity shows us that giving is its own reward.
When performing acts of penance there is a great danger of falling into self-righteousness. The world sees our actions and judges not only us but the whole Church. We are not to practice our piety before men in order to be seen by them. Those who do so have surely received their reward. (Matthew 6:1-21). How are we to act so as to avoid this sin? While fasting, sacrifice, and charity are noble actions and good works, without which faith is barren, they are not an end unto themselves. They are only effective when they are part of an inner conversion. To convert means to turn away. For our Lenten penances to be righteous, we must be turning away from our sin, our idols, and our selfish selves. All of the private works in the world will do us no good if we do not reject wickedness, free the oppressed, visit the imprisoned, feed the hungry, satisfy the thirsty, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, and care for the sick. (Isaiah 58:6-7, Matthew 25:31-46)
Throughout our lives, we sin in thought, word, and deed; through what we have done and what we have failed to do. In the end, all we can offer in defense are our faith (or lack thereof) and the works we did (or neglected to do) in the name of our Savior. That very Savior stands before the judgment seat in our stead and covers our sins in the sight of the Father so that we might be found worthy. How can we begin to be thankful for such an undeserved gift? Let us follow the Church’s example and on bended knee pray as King David prayed in Psalm 51, contrite and sorrowful for our sins and joyful in the promise of God’s forgiveness.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy steadfast love;
according to thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in thy sight,
so that thou art justified in thy sentence and blameless in thy judgment.
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.
Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Fill me with joy and gladness; let the bones which thou hast broken rejoice.
Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from thy presence, and take not thy holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of thy salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors thy ways, and sinners will return to thee.
Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of thy deliverance.
O Lord, open thou my lips, and my mouth shall show forth thy praise.
For thou hast no delight in sacrifice;
were I to give a burnt offering, thou wouldst not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
Do good to Zion in thy good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
then wilt thou delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on thy altar.