“Excuse me sir, but you have a spot on your forehead.” “I know,” I said. “It’s Ash Wednesday.” The response came back immediately, “Oh, that’s right. Sorry, I forgot.” That little scenario has happened to me on a couple of occasions over time, hopefully reminding one more person of the need to “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” The general public seems to be well aware of the Catholic practice of starting Lent with a little dose of ashen humility. This is usually followed up with the proverbial question, “What are you giving up?” Let’s take a closer look at Lent and, with God’s grace, live and learn its practice and purpose a little more deeply.
First of all, why ashes? Actually, there is nothing new about ashes as a sign of repentance, a major theme of the Lenten season. The Bible is replete with ancient references to ashes, 53 in all, often in tandem with sackcloth. These date back to the Old Testament prophets and continue right up to references by Jesus Himself. While today it’s hard to imagine covering ourselves in sackcloth (akin to burlap) and ashes in order to express remorse for our sins, yet the ashes on our foreheads are a modest but telltale sign of what should be our inward desire to repent of our past transgressions and thus strengthen our love for God and neighbor. They are also a stark reminder, of course, of our mortality–the “dust unto which we shall return.”
However, Lent is not meant to be all doom and gloom. The yearly season of Lent, which had its formal beginnings at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., is a prayerful time of preparation for the great celebration of Jesus’ Resurrection. We prepare ourselves through prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Intensifying our prayer life helps us refocus our spirituality on the love God has for us and growing our love for Him. Fasting, or giving up something we enjoy, has the dual effect of reparation for past sins as well as disciplining ourselves to resist future temptation. As we read in the Gospels, after fasting for forty days in the desert, Jesus rejected Satan’s temptations–the perfect example for all of us. Almsgiving is nothing new to Vincentians. Seeing the face of Christ in the poor and responding generously is at the core of the Society’s mission. Dialing up a little more generosity during the Lenten season means raising up the poor that much more.
One final suggestion for a more positive Lent is to try a little introspection that reveals a weakness that we need to overcome; then make a concerted effort to reverse that shortcoming and turn it into a virtue. Perhaps showing patience has become a difficulty. Look for opportunities to go beyond “the call of duty.” Replace sarcastic remarks with genuine compliments that augment relationships rather than denigrate them. You get
the picture. Then when it comes time to celebrate the Resurrection, that smudge of ash will turn into a crown of glory.
Stay safe and stay holy this Lent.