Ash Wednesday is upon us. There is something quite unique about this day. It marks the beginning of Lent as a solemn penitential season of 40 days for the Church. Yet, there is almost something mystical that surrounds Ash Wednesday. Churches are filled with people anxious to receive ashes and to wear that symbol throughout the day. It is a day when people, who may be otherwise reluctant to express their religious beliefs openly, are more than ready to express them in the darkened sign of the Cross on their foreheads which our Holy Father, Pope Francis, described as “a sign that will help us find our direction” in his homily for Ash Wednesday last year. Ash Wednesday and the sign of ashes seem to unite all Catholics, regardless of status within the Church, in one common bond. People actually seem happy to receive ashes. I certainly am one of them.
As I have reflected upon Ash Wednesday over the years, I often wondered what makes it such a unique day. The mark of the burned palm in the form of a cross on our foreheads is a sign of contradiction. The small and insignificant mark of ashes reminds us precisely of the words which are spoken when they are placed upon us: “Remember, that you are dust, and to dust you will return,” or “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”
Ashes remind us of what we try to deny, that we will someday pass from this earth and return to the dust from which God has made us. They also join us in the most fundamental manner. They proclaim boldly, despite all our pretensions and delusions, that we are weak, limited, finite, sinful, and in need of change and repentance. This is the common truth about all of us that we find very hard to face. How comforting it is to admit that truth to others, and to have others admit it to us, without even fully realizing that is what we are admitting through the sign of ashes. It is reassuring to know that we are all in the same category. Ashes are a sign of humility to which everyone is entitled – we do not have to earn or deserve them. Our society goes out of its way to deny the reality of death and sin. However, we need to admit those realities and ashes help us to do it in a very quiet but effective manner.
Of course, admitting that we will pass from this world and admitting our sinfulness are things we would never want to face without the reality of God’s infinite mercy and his gift of eternal life. This is the other side of Ash Wednesday which is the cause for real rejoicing. To admit our limitations, finiteness and sinfulness is to admit them to a God who infinitely loves and forgives us. Ashes remind us that we were made from dust by God who has put his life into that dust. Ashes remind us that we depend not upon ourselves for our value and dignity but upon God who has stamped these upon us. The darkened sign on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday points to the need we have to change our lives and to believe in the Gospel of Christ. The Gospel of Christ is “Good News,” which brings us joy. We stand before a loving God who, despite our refusal at times to love Him, always loves us and forgives us whenever we turn to him. This is what we recall all during Lent and celebrate at Easter.
The second reading for Ash Wednesday tells us of the depth of God’s love for us and points to the real contradiction of this day: “For our sakes, God made Him who did not know sin to be sin, so that in him we might become the very holiness of God” (2 Cor. 5:20). God loves each and every one of us, whom he made from dust, so much that he gave us his son who took our weak and frail human nature to himself so that we might live the very life of God himself forever. What a wonderful exchange, all on God’s part, for us. We can view the ashes as the emptying of Christ and his taking our sins to himself so that we can come to His life and holiness. We can also view them as our own limitations and sinfulness. Quite a contradiction!
It is no wonder that Ash Wednesday is such a unique and even joyful day! We can understand why so many want to receive the insignificant reminder of who we are and, more importantly, who God is. As we embark upon the 40-day journey of Lent, the ashes we receive remind us of our sinfulness and limitations and of our need to change and believe in the Gospel. They remind us of the joy God wants us to have in our lives and the extent to which He goes so that we might have it! Ash Wednesday is a day for everyone, truly a sign that helps us find our direction.
Last year on Ash Wednesday, Pope Francis gave us good words to reflect upon this day as we begin the season of Lent. He explained in his Ash Wednesday homily: “Today we have been offered a sign that will help us find our direction: the head marked by ash. It is a sign that causes us to consider what occupies our mind. Our thoughts often focus on transient things, which come and go. The small mark of ash, which we will receive, is a subtle yet real reminder that of the many things occupying our thoughts, that we chase after and worry about every day, nothing will remain. No matter how hard we work, we will take no wealth with us from this life. Earthly realities fade away like dust in the wind. Possessions are temporary, power passes, success wanes. The culture of appearance prevalent today, which persuades us to live for passing things, is a great deception. It is like a blaze: once ended, only ash remains. Lent is the time to free ourselves from the illusion of chasing after dust. Lent is for rediscovering that we are created for the inextinguishable flame, not for ashes that immediately disappear; for God, not for the world; for the eternity of heaven, not for earthly deceit; for the freedom of the children of God, not for slavery to things. We should ask ourselves today: Where do I stand? Do I live for fire or for ash?”
What we recall on Ash Wednesday is part and parcel of the entire 40 days of Lent and also of the Easter season. Let us keep the spirit of Ash Wednesday during the 40 days of Lent, recalling the prayer by which the ashes are blessed: “Lord, bless these ashes by which we show that we are dust. Pardon our sins and keep us faithful to the discipline of Lent for you do not want sinners to die but to live with the risen Christ, who reigns with you for ever and ever.”