Today is Ash Wednesday, the day which marks the beginning of the penitential season of Lent. For most of us, this day was one of serious reflection accompanied by the reception of ashes on our foreheads. However, similar to so many other aspects of the previous year, this may look very different for us. In the midst of darkness, though, Christ forever shines in new ways and ushers forth the genesis of a time for renewed hope and the restoration of new life.
The ashes distributed on this day are created from burnt palm branches which evoke the solemn and contrite nature of this season. The ashes literally symbolize death and the fact that this entire time period awaits the brutal humiliation, beating, suffering and death of Jesus Christ. While we must always keep in mind that his epic downfall resulted in the infinite victory of the resurrection and defeat over the powers of evil, sin and death, Lent asks us to never sweep over the profound and deep suffering which our God endured for our sake.
As the minister distributes the ashes, they can utter one of two formulas which both act as signposts for the disciple. The first is “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel” which highlights the radical nature of Jesus’ accomplishment on Calvary and from the empty tomb. Lent is the reminder that sin is real and powerful, but it also lays out the fact that Jesus destroyed sin’s grip on our lives. So long as we live united to Him in prayer and remain guided by His teachings, we do not have to be chained to evil’s terror in our lives.
The second option is “Remember, you are dust and to dust you will return” which sets the tone for what the stakes of our lives really are. The spiritual life is a combat that has the highest reward, but also the most serious of risks. Lent serves as the blueprint guiding our souls to the gates of heaven and leading them away from the pits of destruction. Every single person who has ever lived has died; this is the great equalizer and the one thing every person shares in common with their neighbor. The good news is that this is not a headline leading to despair but a truth to be reckoned with: death is not the end because of what happens at the end of Lent.
The readings at each Mass for Ash Wednesday also contain words which rise to the heavens and bring about the capacity for renewing our lives of faith. They remain very similar each year and stand as reminders for what we are entering into along with directions for how to set out on our mission each Lent. The first reading is either taken from the book of Joel (Jl 2:12-18) or from the prophet Isaiah (Isa 58:1-12). On most occasions, Joel is used and his words resound through the ages. “Return to me with your whole heart…return to the LORD, your God. For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness.”
Lent asks us to run back to our God and recall the ways in which we have placed other things and people in his rightful place while keeping in mind the great mercy and kindness he will always bestow upon us. Lent is a time for renewal through return, a period for focusing on the most important component of what it means to be human: to have our relationship with God be the most foundational and pivotal aspect of our existence.
The second reading is taken from the second letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians (2 Cor 5:20-6:2) and shows the goal God has for us each and every day. “We are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us.” An ambassador is an ancient messenger who stood in the place for the king and literally represented his power, authority and glory. Every disciple is called to be this type of messenger for Jesus. God desires to appeal to the world using us as holy instruments of joy, peace and love.
We also hear one of the oldest Christian hymns which would have been taught to Paul following his famous conversion: “For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” Jesus Christ is God, but God allowed himself to experience the utter weight of darkness, evil and sin through his unfathomable suffering at Golgotha. By taking that upon his shoulders, literally, he obliterated sin’s weight and control over our souls and proved his victory by rising from the dead. In doing so, our relationship with God is made just (right again) and we can live outside the realm of sin by attaching ourselves to his glory.
Finally, our Gospel is taken from Matthew (Mt 6:1-6, 16-18) and serves as an outline of the three most important avenues of penance during the season of Lent. Jesus gives directions concerning “when you give alms…when you pray…when you fast” which consistently act as demands for authentic faith and reliance on God. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are not manufactured by the Church, but provided to us from the lips of God himself.
When we give to the poor we are called to never seek attention and fame by “blowing a trumpet” before we do so, but to always give from the desire for others to know they are known and loved. Charity must never be consumed by a desire for us to gain notoriety. When we pray we are called to go to our “inner room” and give our hearts in reckless abandonment while we are alone with God. When we fast we are called to be men and women of joy and to “not appear to be fasting” because this only seeks the approval of others and not the recognition of God “who sees in secret and will repay you.”
No matter what practices we pick up this Lent, let us be reminded that prayer, fasting and almsgiving are not recommendations but requirements from God. These are true tools and weapons for our journey during Lent, but they are also key aspects for every Christian who craves intimacy with the Trinity. Let us hear Jesus speaking these words to us in a renewed manner each day and let us make this Lent the best one of our lives.
Most importantly though, let us pray for Ash Wednesday to become the true starting line for us to grow closer with Jesus as a real living person who stops at nothing to enter our mess and restore every darkness from the inside out.