Lent – Ash Wednesday, February 10, 2016 – A journey toward change

Categories: Around the Diocese,lent,Nation/World

CNS photo/Christopher Riggs, The Catholic Advance

CNS photo/Christopher Riggs, The Catholic Advance

By Daniel S. Mulhall
Catholic News Service

There are three days within the church’s liturgical year that are guaranteed to bring people to a church service. The first two are Christmas and Easter. They are the two most important feasts in Christianity, marking, as they do, the birth and resurrection of Jesus. The third day is Ash Wednesday.

Unlike Christmas and Easter, Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation and Mass attendance is not required. Instead of liturgical pageantry, participants come to a simple and solemn service that focuses on an act of humility.

The focal point of Ash Wednesday (and thus, its name) is the reception of ashes smudged in the shape of the cross on one’s forehead, and not the reception of the body and blood of Christ as it is at other Catholic liturgical celebrations.

While Mass still occurs and the eucharistic feast is still offered to God, many people come just to receive the ashes.

What is it about Ash Wednesday that it exerts such a pull on the lives of Catholics?

As the first day of the six weeks of the Lenten season, Ash Wednesday begins a period of fasting, penitence, almsgiving and abstaining from rich food and drink (such as meat and alcohol). By receiving a cross of ashes on one’s forehead, the Christian (yes, Ash Wednesday is observed in most mainline Protestant traditions as well) expresses a commitment to take Lent seriously and to participate actively in the Lenten practices.

By being marked with the sign of the cross, Christians reaffirm their baptismal commitment to being the Lord’s disciple. The smudged forehead signifies that a person is returning to the Lord.

Ashes have been used as a symbol of abasement and repentance throughout human history. It was a practice in ancient Greece and Persia, and is mentioned numerous times in the Old Testament.

People would don garments made of rough cloth (sackcloth) and cover themselves with ashes as an outward sign of their inner sorrow. Through their discomfort — sackcloth is scratchy — and public humiliation, the sinner hoped to be forgiven and accepted back into the community.

In the early days of the church, the sacrament of reconciliation (or penance) was not practiced as we now know it. Confessing one’s sins to a priest was introduced to the church by Irish monks in the Middle Ages. Prior to that, people’s sinfulness was generally forgiven through the reception of the Eucharist and by public correction within the church.

For serious sins, such as murder, adoration of idols, rejecting the faith, a more serious penance was required. In these cases a sinner was required to wear sackcloth and ashes for several weeks so that they could be forgiven and received back into the church community at Easter. Aspects of this practice can be seen in today’s Lenten practices.

While public humiliation is no longer required for forgiveness, receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday alone is not enough to bring about the healing of wounds caused by our sinfulness. Personal conversion is still necessary. As Isaiah 58 asks us, more or less, what good does fasting serve (or beating one’s breast begging for forgiveness) while one continues to lie, cheat and steal? God will judge us by how we live as disciples and not by our public displays of piety.

Lent is a penitential season for all Christians, whether one is devout, pious and a faithful churchgoer or one hasn’t stepped foot in a church or prayed for years. During Lent, all are called to return to the Lord, to admit their sinfulness and to change their lives.

The change of heart the Lord asks of us may actually be harder for the devout than it is for those who have been away for years. Those of us who seek to be faithful may be blind to our weaknesses and failures, while many of those who stay away do so because they know all too well their sinfulness.

As Pope Francis continually tells us, the church must act like a field hospital: we must offer care, compassion and love to everyone seeking the healing touch of the Lord. Ours is not to judge or demand that people change their ways to feel the Lord’s blessing.

Let them first be healed from their suffering, and then we can try to help them amend their thinking and behavior. What a powerful image of the Lord’s love and mercy!

There are things that we can do as we embark on this Lenten journey to make the most of this return to the Lord. The prophet Isaiah tells us (Isaiah 58:6-8) what is required: release those bound unjustly, ease the burden of those who struggle, set free those oppressed, give shelter, food and clothing to those in need. Only then shall our light “break forth like the dawn” and our wounds heal.

Ashes are an outward sign of our desire to return to the Lord, butthey are only meaningful if they lead us to conversion of hearts and a changing of our lives.

Mulhall is a catechist. He lives in Laurel, Maryland.