"Remember, man, that you are dust and to dust you shall return."
On the first day of Lent, these are the words (adapted from Genesis 2:19) spoken as someone, usually a priest, dips his thumb in ash and makes the sign of the cross on your forehead. They serve as an outward sign of an inner penance. They are a symbol of mortality.You’ll wear those ashes for the remainder of the day, or at least until they rub off. Wherever you go and whatever you do, you’ll be a witness to the faith. Those who see you will know that you have been baptized into the death of Jesus Christ and hope to share in His resurrection.
Anecdotal evidence and casual observation seem to indicate that more people attend Ash Wednesday mass than Christmas or even Easter, the holiest day of the year. That alone is impressive, but more impressive is the fact that it’s not even a Holy Day of Obligation. We are obliged to attend Sunday mass and a handful of special occasions, but that rarely guarantees univeral or even majority attendance. Yet a great many who otherwise neglect to attend on Sundays (or even Saturday evenings), when odds are they are not required to work, will take time out of their work day to attend a morning or midday Ash Wednesday mass to receive ashes.
Why do people make such special efforts? Maybe they seek to fulfill an innate desire to confess sins and make amends with God and man. Then again, they may wish to publicly display their piety, real or pretended, in a Pharisaic fashion, seeking the admiration of men. Perhaps for some it is a mark of Catholicity. Nothing declares "Roman Catholic" in such an obvious way in this country, like ashes on one’s forehead. In a Protestant-dominant country, such a display may serve as a means of identifying fellow members of the Church in a crowd or as a sort of harmless counter "protest".
It seems there is potential for a great deal of misunderstanding and/or skewed priorities within the Church regarding Ash Wednesday. If Catholics are confused about Lent, what then of Protestants? Certainly, there is much misunderstanding and distrust of Catholic practices on the part of many Protestants, particularly so-called fundamentalists. What are they thinking when they see us with dirty foreheads once a year? Are other Lenten practices misunderstood, perhaps even underappreciated?
I have no hard evidence of confusion within or without the Church regarding Lent. I can, however, say that I am a former Protestant and that now and before becoming a Catholic, there is much I do not know or fully understand about Lent. That was enough to inspire me to write. An important lesson I have learned from academia is that if you’re struggling with a concept, chances are someone else is, too. Rather than be afraid of asking dumb questions, we should fear ignorant silence. It is my sincere hope that my efforts to make myself more knowledgable on this subject will be edifying to all who read this article. Let us now explore Ash Wednesday a bit, as it is the key to understanding and appreciating Lent.
"So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened" – Genesis 3:6,7a
Sin entered the world when mankind desired the ability to determine good and evil for themselves rather than trust the Lord, our creator. Two consequences followed the Fall – suffering and death. Man abused God’s trust and separated himself from the Lord. Scripture tells us that "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23). Man could have lived in perfect harmony with God but chose to rebel. Man was no longer fit to be in God’s presense. From that point on, man would bear the wound of that rebellion.
Of course, we know that Jesus Christ repaired this broken relationship with His death and resurrection. Mankind has been offered the grace necessary to be acceptable in God’s sight. Through baptism "the old has passed away, behold, the new has come" (2 Corinthians 5:17). However, though we are no longer accountable for the sin of our remote progentitors, we are still fallen creatures and our relationship with God is damaged. Like a spouse who has been hurt by adultery, forgiveness comes long before trust. Lives must change. Promises must be kept. It is not enough to recognize and confess sin. We must turn from it, be sorrowful because of it, willing to repair the damge done to relationships by it, and resolute to avoid it in the future.
How does Ash Wednesday fit into this? The ashes remind us of our mortality. We gather together and acknowledge that none is perfect and we all deserve death and eternal separation from God for our sins. The solemnity also serves to usher in the liturgical season of Lent. During Lent, the Church helps the faithful prepare for the remembrance of the great sacrfice and victory of Easter, just as we fast a short time before the remembrance at every mass, the Eucharist.
Lent is a season of penance and anticipation, much like Advent. In the earliest days of the Church, neither Lent nor Easter was celebrated. Many assumed that Christ would be returning within their lifetimes, so anniversaries were of little import. Over time, the Church began to develop a liturgical year and celebrate holy days. Much of the liturgical year is dedicated to remembering, that is making present again, important events in salvation history. Easter, which was instituted before Lent, is the celebration of the Paschal Mystery, of which the Eucharist is a reminder.
The Eucharist is the sacrament of our redemption. Jesus gave His flesh to save and sustain us. In order to receive this sacrament worthily, we fast and, if necessary, confess our mortal sins. Each time we receive the Eucharist, we recall our Lord’s passion. If we prepare ourselves for the Eucharist with repentance and fasting, surely we should do likewise for Easter. While this explanation is an oversimplification of the development of Lent, it does serve to justify its current observance.
Starting with Ash Wednesday, Lent is a season lasting forty days and ends on Easter Sunday. The six Sundays of Lent are not counted in the forty days because every Sabbath recalls Easter and is a time for joy and worship, rather than mortification (i.e self-denial and self-deprivation).
Why forty days? Forty is an important number in Scripture. The first mention is the great flood (Genesis 6 and 7). There are numerous other occurances of this number, including, but not limited to, the time Moses spent on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:27-28), the desert wandering, in which the sinful members of Israel were pruned away until the children of Abraham were worthy and ready to enter the promised land (Numbers 32:10-13), and the time Israel was consquered by the Philistines (Judges 13:1). It represents purity or purification. It also signifies fullness of time or number. Thus, Lent lasts forty days (not counting Sundays), as a fittingly long period of penance, purification, and mortification.
The Scripture that may be the most relevant use of the number forty in the Old Testament, as it relates to Lent, is the story of Jonah and the repentance of Ninevah. Jonah informed the people of Ninivah that the Lord would destroy them in forty days if they did not repent. Jonah did not expect them to heed the warning, but they did and "they proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them". When the king heard, he ordered the whole nation, even the animals, to be covered with sackcloth, to cry mightily to God, and to turn from their evil ways (Jonah 3:4-10).
Like the citizens of Nineveh, we repent of our sins and pray for God’s mercy. We know, of course, that we have already received the mercy of sanctifying grace, through which we are saved by Jesus Christ. However, we still seek to humble ourselves before God and ask for actual grace, i.e. the grace to perfom acts pleasing to the Lord.
While the Scriptures of the old covenants (Noah, Abraham, and Moses) are rich with symbolic use of the number forty and inspirations for Lent, the second person of the Trinity Himself gives us the best example to follow. "Full of the Holy Spirit", he spent forty days in the wilderness without food. The devil tempted him with with worldly goods and power, but Jesus told him that "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.", "You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.", and "You shall not tempt the Lord your God.". We should pay close attention to what Jesus said and apply it to our lives.
During Lent the Church helps her members to seek to die to self and open themselves up to grace. "Repentance" is derived from the Latin verb for "to repair/restore"; we seek to restore a right relationship with God. This is acheived through fasting, sacrifices, and acts of charity. God wishes for us to "return to [Him] with all [our] heart[s], with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend [our] hearts and not [our] garments.", "for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love" He asks us to sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep and say, ‘Spare thy people, O LORD, and make not thy heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?”". Then He will become jealous for His people and take pity on them. (Joel 2:12-19)
Lenten practices have changed and developed over time. Current teaching is to observe a fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, which means only one full meal and two small meals that are not together as large as the full meal. Also, on those days and all Fridays of Lent, we are to abstain from eating the meat of warm-blooded animals. It is also customary to give up something cherished as a sacrifice. Some people give up favorite foods. Others avoid idols in their lives, such as television. A few Catholics donate time or money to charities. It’s a shame so few do since, as St. Peter said, charity "covers a multitude of sins" (1 Peter 4:8).
However, Jesus gives us a stern warning regarding how to properly perform acts of penance.
"Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." – Matthew 6:1-8,16-21
When perfoming acts of penance there is a great danger of falling into self-righteousness. The world sees our actions and judges not only us but the whole Church. How are we to act so as to avoid this sin? Fasting helps us to focus on the Lord. Sacrifice helps us to gain control of our desires. Charity shows us that giving is its own reward. While all of these are noble actions and good works, without which faith is barren, they are not an end unto themselves. Not being sacraments, they only conditionally convey grace. That is, they are effective when they are part of an inner conversion. To convert means to turn away. For our Lenten penances to righteous, we must be turning away from our sin, our idols, and our selfish selves. All of the private works in the world will do us no good if we do not "loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free…to break every yoke…to share [our] bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into [our] house; when [we] see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide [ourselves] from [our] own flesh" (Isaiah 58:6-7)
We are all mere creatures. All we haves comes from our generous Creator. Even if were ours to keep, what good would it do us? We are all mortals. We will all die and we can’t take any of our accumlations with us. If we could, would we really want to? Would we really choose toys and trinkets over the fullness of the beatific vision?
Throughout our lives, we sin in thought, word, and deed; through what we have done and what we have failed to do. In the end, all we can offer in defense are our faith (or lack thereof) and the works we did (or neglected to do) in the name of our Savior. That very Savior stands before the judgement seat in our stead and covers our sins in the sight of the Father so that we might be found worthy. How can we begin to be thankful for such an undeserved gift? Let us follow the Church’s example and on bended knee pray as King David prayed.
"Have mercy on me, O God,
according to thy steadfast love;
according to thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against thee, thee only, have I sinned,
and done that which is evil in thy sight,
so that thou art justified in thy sentence
and blameless in thy judgment.
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me.
Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Fill me with joy and gladness;
let the bones which thou hast broken rejoice.
Hide thy face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from thy presence,
and take not thy holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of thy salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors thy ways,
and sinners will return to thee.
Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God,
thou God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of thy deliverance.
O Lord, open thou my lips,
and my mouth shall show forth thy praise.
For thou hast no delight in sacrifice;
were I to give a burnt offering, thou wouldst not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
Do good to Zion in thy good pleasure;
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
then wilt thou delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on thy altar."