Dear Ones ~
Ash Wednesday, a day of prayer and fasting, marks the beginning of Lent. I often marvel at how many people are drawn to services on Ash Wednesday. After all, it falls smack in the middle of the week. I once discussed this with my spiritual director at the time. He noted that everyone who showed up left with something, no matter their status in or outside the Church. Leaving with a smudge of black on the forehead holds deep resonance for many, many people.
Ash Wednesday marks the first day of the 40 days of Lent, a six-week period (excluding Sundays) dedicated to prayer, fasting, and reflection in preparation for the great celebration of Christ’s Paschal Mystery in the Easter Triduum (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday). The late Henri Nouwen described Lent as a time to re-focus and to re-enter a place of truth. It is here where we find our true identity.
Ash Wednesday is the best way to begin a season which calls us into self-examination as well as self-denial, into deeper contemplation about the mystery and grace of God's mercy, and toward more radical giving to those most in need of comfort, sustenance and hope.
Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
The line from Genesis reminds us that our lives on this earth won’t last forever. We are a finite people who hold hope in something infinite and beyond ourselves. Bearing a mark throughout the day that is visible to others puts an exclamation point on the Genesis passage. We become walking witnesses of that place of truth.
Heaping ashes upon the head, rending the garment, and donning sackcloth were all outward signs of penitence in biblical times. Such a display was one of abject humility and repentance, but could also turn into an occasion for infighting and ego-inflation.
The ashes used on Ash Wednesday are obtained from the burning of the palms of a previous Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday marks Jesus' return to Jerusalem, when people waved palm branches to celebrate his arrival. The ashes are blessed by the priest during the Ash Wednesday Mass after the homily. Then the ashes are applied to each person's forehead in the shape of a cross.
And so, we begin the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday. The ancient practice of Ash Wednesday reminds us that we are mortal. It causes us to pause and look at our lives– to remember what we are made of, to remember where we are going, and encourages us to fully immerse ourselves in the Lenten season.
May Ash Wednesday be for you a portal into Lent, a season of reflection, repentance and renewal. May these forty days strengthen our faith as we journey to Jerusalem, Holy Week, and into the promise of Easter.