I saw that meme yesterday and laughed out loud. Funny but true about today: Ash Wednesday. The day you notice men, women, and children with black crosses made from ashes on their foreheads. It’s today, but what is it and why? Whether you received your ashes or wonder why someone has ashes on their forehead at the office, the gym, the grocery store, or anywhere else, you’re in the right place on the right day.
Just yesterday at Bible Study my friend told me that last year during Ash Wednesday mass the priest mentioned that today is the most attended day of mass for Catholics. I would have guessed all those “CEO” masses, “Christmas and Easter Only,” would have been the winners and I’m not sure what this tells us, but it’s good to know so many…millions actually…are adhering to a tradition that goes way back. But how far back, and why?
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 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, social media, TV…whatever we choose…but we also focus on Jesus’ own words regarding the three main disciplines of Lent: praying, fasting, and giving alms, also known as charity. It is said that prayer demonstrates our relationship with God, fasting demonstrates our relationship with our inner self, and giving alms demonstrates our relationship with others. 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 believers and sinners in need of repentance and renewal. We can for sure give up things, but we should also give and do things…good things.
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.”
The first clear evidence of Ash Wednesday was around the year 960 and there is also much biblical scripture supporting today’s practice. In fact, when receiving ashes a person is told “turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.” The gospel is scripture and scripture is God.
But why the ashes? Ashes are ancient symbols of repentance; they remind us of our mortality and the “ashes to ashes” bible verse. Lastly, being marked with a cross 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”), and we remember that we are mortal beings (“and to dust you will return”).
I have a Lenten book of daily meditations that I have had for years and refer to it every Lent. Instead of suggesting the usual things to give up like alcohol, gossip, envy, sugar, etc., it instead offers the following inspiration:
Fast from judging others; feast on loving them
Fast from differences; feast on unity
Fast from perfection; feast on acceptance
Fast from hurting; feast on kind words
Fast from sadness; feast on joy
Fast from thoughts of illness; feast on the healing power of God
Fast from words that pollute; feast on words that purify
Fast from envy; feast on gratitude
Fast from anger; feast on patience
Fast form pessimism; feast on hope
Fast from complaining; feast on appreciation
Fast from worry; feast on trust
Don’t we all suffer from many of the above things we could stand to fast from? Any number of us are people pleasers, workaholics, perfectionists, multi-taskers, or whatever you want to call it. But, as we heard in Bible Study yesterday, don’t think confuse being busy enough with being good enough. Maybe we all just need to slow down and look inward, not so much outward, and remember 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.
Things to Give Up for Lent
- The need to please everyone
- Fear of failure
- Feelings of unworthiness
- Your comfort zone
Such great ideas for things to fast from during Lent, and every day.