Lest you think tomorrow that your Catholic co-workers, neighbors, or passersby on the street forgot to wash their face, let me try to explain Ash Wednesday.
Thank you, Jewish neighbors, for letting us borrow yet another of your signs and practices. The Hebrew part of the Bible, what we Christians usually call the Old Testament, refers to ashes as a sign of repentance. In other words, if we want to show ourselves, our friends, and, most importantly, the Lord, that we are sorry for our sins, we cover ourselves with ashes!
Well, we don’t quite cover our whole body, but, we do present ourselves to be marked with ashes, in the sign of the cross – – since, for us Christians, it is that cross of Christ which takes our sins away.
There’s one reason for the smudge of ashes you’ll see on our foreheads tomorrow.
A second reason for ashes is obvious in the crisp exhortation the priest recites as he imposes them: “Remember, you are dust, and unto dust you shall return!”
A stark reminder of our mortality: as much as we cherish and enjoy this life on earth, it will come to an end! And, wise is the person who always keeps eternity in mind. For this life is just antipasto for the main course beyond.
Ash Wednesday is but the opening pitch for forty days of “spiritual spring training,” Lent. The goal is Easter. The hope is that, if we unite ourselves more closely with Jesus on His cross – – through more fervent prayer, charity to others, and penance for our sins – – through His mercy we’ll be united with Him in His Resurrection.
The need to prayerfully, humbly, consider our faults and weaknesses, and strive to do better, is not a uniquely Catholic practice. It’s ingrained in the human heart and soul. Our Jewish friends have Yom Kippur, their “Day of Atonement”; our Islamic folks have Ramadan, a month of fasting from food. We Christians have Lent.
Now, if we Catholics don’t intend that our smudge of ashes to represent a deep down desire for conversion of heart, that black mark on our foreheads is at best a pious superstition, at worst hypocrisy. As Jesus reminds us, it’s what’s inside that counts.
Yet, these ashes are a powerful sign. In a culture that tells us, “I’m okay, you’re okay,” tomorrow retorts, “Actually, I don’t know about you, but, I’m not okay! I’m a sinner in need of God’s mercy!”
In a world that sometimes asks, “Is this all there is,” those ashes answer, “No!” This life is beautiful and sacred, but only a hint of what our good God has in store for us for all eternity. Set your hearts, then, on what is above!”
What’s consoling about Ash Wednesday is that we realize “I’m not alone!” Thirty five thousand people will stand in line from 7am to 9pm at Saint Patrick’s, waiting for ashes. Tens of millions more will do the same at churches all around the globe. Each will realize he or she is part of a spiritual family that realizes we need God’s tender mercy, that we have an everlasting destiny, and that this life here on earth is better with a bit more prayer, charity, and self-sacrifice. That family we call the Church.
My Ash Wednesday always includes participating in one of our many Catholic charitable efforts, helping those in need. I’ll also celebrate the noon Mass at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, where I’ll get my ashes, and distribute them to parishioners. I’ll also spend some time in the confessional, offering the sacrament of reconciliation – confession – to those seeking God’s mercy. I’ll be sure to get to confession myself — more than once! – during Lent.
By the way, you hardly have to be a Catholic to take part! You don’t have to be a member of the Church to receive ashes. All you have to do is recognize you need God’s help and mercy, and that this life we relish now is passing away. . . like ashes!
A blessed Ash Wednesday and Lent!