By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” Genesis 3:19
David Bowie may have sung it, but today Catholics around the world are living it. Ash Wednesday. It’s today, but what is it and why? Whether you received your ashes and wonder why or whether you saw someone with ashes on their forehead and wonder why, this blog is for you!
It helps to understand that Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, which is 40 days of quiet and reflection leading up to Easter Sunday. We remember what lies ahead on Good Friday, the Passion of Christ, and what it means for us and to us. We try to slow down and listen to God. Jesus suffered more than any of us can ever imagine on that fateful day, so we take this time to “suffer” in the way of sacrifice and loss.
Yes, we “give up things” like sodas, coffee, alcohol, TV…whatever we choose, but we also focus on Jesus’ own words regarding the three main disciplines of Lent: giving alms (charity), praying, and fasting. Jesus also instructs us to do all of these without seeking recognition and we are reminded that we don’t wear the ashes to proclaim our holiness to others but to acknowledge that we are a community of sinners in need of repentance and renewal. We can give up things, but we should also do things…do good things.
During Lent we are also asked to devote more time to personal prayer and to apologize and ask for forgiveness form others and from God. We are not perfect and we confess our imperfections as we wait for the joy and cleansing of Easter Sunday.
The first clear evidence of Ash Wednesday was around the year 960 and there is also much biblical scripture supporting today’s practices. In fact, when receiving ashes a person is told “turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.” The gospel is scripture.
But why the ashes? Ashes are ancient symbols of repentance, ashes remind us of our mortality and the “ashes to ashes” bible verse, and lastly being marked with a cross symbol on our forehead reminds us that we belong to Christ and we ask Him to develop in us a spirit of humility and sacrifice, much like He did for us.
When we receive ashes on our foreheads, we remember who we are. We remember that we are creatures of the earth (“remember that you are dust”), we remember that we are mortal beings (“and to dust you will return”), and we remember that we are members of the body of Christ.
I have a Lenten book of daily meditations that I have had for years and really love. My bookmark in it reads:
Fast from judging others, feast on Christ dwelling in them
Fast from differences, feast on unity
Fast from thoughts of illness, feast on the healing power of God
Fast from words that pollute, feast on words that purify
Fast from discontent, feast on gratitude
Fast from anger, feast on patience
Fast form pessimism, feast on optimism
Fast from worry, feast on God’s promises
Fast from complaining, feast on appreciation
The prayer handed out today at our services also spoke to me. It reads:
Forty Days – A Prayer for Lent
Forty days alone, a wilderness of thought, tempting and inviting thoughts that could so easily have distracted you from your task, your mission, your vision. Yet you emerged stronger and more attuned to all that had to be done despite a time constraint that to our eyes would have seemed hopeless. We too live in stressful times. Demands are made of our time that leave so little for the important things of life. We are easily distracted in the wilderness of our lives by every call to go this way or that. We listen to the voices of the world and ignore the one who endured all this and so much more and emerged triumphant that we might not have to suffer so. Forgive us Father when we get distracted from our task. Forgive us those times when we try to be all things to all men and fail to be anything to anyone. Amen.
It’s that last line that really got me: trying to be all things to all yet ultimately failing to be really anything. Don’t we all do this sometimes? Many of us are people pleasers, workaholics, perfectionists, multi-taskers, whatever you want to call it. Maybe we all just need to slow down and look inward, not so much outward and remember that the only person you should try to impress is God.
Finally, I’ve seen the following list of things to give up floating around the internet during the past week and I really like it. I hope you do too.
20 Things to Give Up for Lent
- The need to please everyone
- Sense of entitlement
- Bitterness and Resentment
- Gossip and Negativity
- Fear of failure
- Feelings of unworthiness
Such great ideas for things to fast from during Lent, and every day.