We are about to enter into yet another Season of Lent. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent. It calls us for radical repentance and conversion. It is a time for self-examination and penitence in preparation for Easter. Normally most Christians do give a serious start for the Lenten Season, endorsing themselves with Ashes on the forehead, attending the Holy Mass ; and observance of fasting, abstinence from meat with a spirit of repentance for one’s sins and transgressions.
Fasting and abstinence which foster self-discipline and self-denial are good spiritual exercises for reparation of our sins and for our spiritual revival ; it increases our total dependence on God’s love and mercy. As Pope Leo I. stressed it in the 5th century: „the purpose of fasting is to foster pure, holy and spiritual activity. It is an act of solidarity that joins us to Christ and an act of self-donation in imitation of His total self-sacrifice.“
The first clear evidence of Ash Wednesday is around 960. It is called Ash Wednesday because of the very significant Rite of endorsement of ashes on our forehead. The ashes used are normally obtained from burning the Palm leaves from the previous year and this tradition began from the 12th century. Putting a cross mark on the forehead was in imitation of the spiritual mark or seal that is put on us in Baptism which signifies the deliverance from slavery to sin and the devil, and becoming a servant of righteousness in Christ. (Rom. 6,3f).During the Liturgy, after the Liturgical prayers the ashes are blessed with sprinkling of Holy water before use.
What does the endorsing with ashes on the forehead signify? After the fall of our first parents – Adam and Eve – God told Adam : „ by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust and to dust you shall return“ (Gen. 3,19). It is a reminder of the frailty of our life, to recognize that our life here is not permanent, as we all are on our way to our permanent abode in heaven (Phil. 3,20). In this life’s journey, keeping that focus, we need to live worthy to reach our eternal goal for „nothing unclean will enter the Kingdom of God“ (Rev. 21,27).
Let us look at some Biblical references which indicate the application of ashes as the penitent’s way of expressing sorrow for sins.
In the book of Judith we see instances where ashes were strewn on their heads as a sign of their penance, imploring the mercy of the Lord : “All the Israelites, men, women, and children living in Jerusalem prostrated themselves in front of the temple and put ashes upon their heads, displaying their sackcloth covering before the Lord“ (Jdt. 4,11-15; 9,1).
Under the leadership of Judas, the Israelites prepared for the battle against the army of Antiochus Epiphanus in order to restore the people of Judah from their ruined estate, and to fight for their sanctuary. They gathered together to pray and implore God for mercy and compassion. „They fasted that day, put on sackcloth and sprinkled ashes on their heads, and tore their clothes“ (1 Macc. 3,47; 4,39).
God told his people through Prophet Jeremiah: „O my poor people, put on sackcloth, and roll in ashes; make mourning as for an only child, most bitter lamentation“ (Jer. 6,26). When Daniel was pleading for the mercy of the Lord on behalf of God’s people, he „turned to the Lord God, to seek an answer by prayer and supplication with fasting, sackcloth and ashes.“ (Dan. 9,3).
Though prophet Jonah first rebelled against God’s plan, he later obeyed God’s command and preached in the city of Nineveh, exhorting people to repent in order to escape the just punishment of God for their sinful life. „The people believed God; they proclaimed a fast and everyone, great and small put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in the ashes“ (Jon. 3, 5-6).
We see that Jesus is also referring to the use of sackcloth and ashes as signs of repentance: „ Woe to you, Chorazin ! Woe to you Bethsaida! For if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would long ago have repented in sackcloth and ashes“ (Mt.11,21; Lk. 10,13).
On the very first day of Lent, the Church is through the Liturgy exhorting the faithful to reject sin and do acts of penance and reparation. The call to conversion , a turning away from sin and turning toward Jesus echo throughout the Liturgy of Ash Wednesday.
In the first Reading, prophet Joel is appealing for individual and communitarian conversion. „ Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near- a day of darkness and gloom….“ (Joel. 2,2). Instead of being panic-stricken, hearing and reading about the last days, let us respond to the call to repent and change our ways. The Mother Church invites Her faithful year after year “to return to the Lord with fasting, weeping and mourning“, and she reminds us also that our God is ‚“gracious and merciful , slow to anger; rich in kindness and relenting in punishment. The merciful Lord offers this holy season of Lent to return to the Lord „rending our heart, not clothing“ (Joel 2,13).
In the second Reading St.Paul is asking us „to be reconciled to God.“ Now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” (2 Cor. 6,2). As Pope Benedict XVI spoke to the faithful a couple of years back during the Ash Wednesday Liturgy: „The 40 days in preparation for the Easter are a favorable time and a time of grace, precisely from the appeal that the austere Rite of the imposition of ashes addresses to us, and which is expressed in the liturgy in two formulas: ‚Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel‘; „Remember, man, you are dust and to dust you will return“. To repent and convert is to change the direction in the journey of life. Conversion means swimming against the tide, where the „tide“ is superficial lifestyle, inconsistent and deceptive, that often makes us slaves to evil or at any rate, prisoners of moral mediocrity. With conversion, on the other hand, we are aiming for the high standard of Christian living, we entrust ourselves to the living and personal Gospel which is Jesus Christ. He is our final goal and profound meaning of conversion, he is the path on which all are called to walk through life…“
The Gospel is challenging us to go out of our selfish and self-centered life to reach out to the needy and less fortunate ones. All that we enjoy in life is a gift of God. As St.Paul asks: „What do you have that you did not receive” ? (1 Cor. 4,7). God spoke through Prophet Isaiah: „ Is not this the fast that I choose: to loosen the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them?….Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly….If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness ….“ (Is. 58,6f).
Lent is a special season of grace; a time of conversion and spiritual growth. It is quite meaningful that we start the Lent with the observance of Ash Wednesday. Through the Rite of applying ashes onto our forehead, we acknowledge that we are sinners in need of repentance and renewal. Like Jonah who resisted God’s call and went his own way, we too, often rebel against God’s plan. But the loving God gives us opportunities to make us realize our mistakes. But we need to respond to God’s call to conversion.
In his 1979 Lenten Message Bl. Pope John Paul II. had said: „ Penance is not just an effort, a weight, but it is also a joy. Sometimes it is a great joy of the human spirit, a delight that other sources cannot bring forth. Contemporary man seems to have lost, to some extent, the flavor of this joy. He has also lost the deep sense of that spiritual effort which makes it possible to find oneself again in the whole truth of one’s interior being. Our civilization especially in the West, closely connected as it is with the development of science and technology, catches a glimpse of the need for intellectual and physical effort. But he has lost the sense of the effort of the spirit, the fruit of which is seen in his inner self. The whole period of Lent, since it is a preparation for Easter, is a systematic call to this joy that comes from the effort of patiently finding oneself again. Let no one be afraid to undertake this effort“.
God speaks also about ‘joyful fasting’ to Prophet Zechariah. The fast days of several months “shall become occasions of joy and gladness, cheerful festivals for the house of Judah; only love faithfulness and peace”( Zech. 8,19).
The Lord said to one of the four Cherubim : „Go through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark upon the foreheads of those who moan and groan over all the abominations that are committed within it..“ (Ezk.9,4).
Each age has its own abominations. The use of contraception, increasing rate of abortion, legalizing homosexuality and gay marriage, free sex (living together without marriage), divorce, loss of faith and satanism, and all the scandals within the Church are some of the abominations of the modern times. As we enter into this solemn season of Lent, let us understand the need „to moan and groan“ over these. May we make use of this God given opportunity to plead for the mercy of the Lord for ourselves and for the whole humanity.
Let us pray to the Holy Spirit that we may open our ears and hearts to the Word of God; like the Ninevehites responding in true repentance of our wrong ways and determination to convert and to follow God’s ways. This is the significance of Ash Wednesday.
Fr. JMK, Mary Pereira