“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This is yet another joyful Catholic phrase reminding us of our own mortality. But Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent goes deeper than this. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the liturgical season of Lent, a forty-day preparation for Holy Week, culminating in Easter Sunday, when Catholics gather to bear witness to the Resurrection of Christ.
So, why do we celebrate Ash Wednesday? What is the meaning of ashes? First and foremost, the ashes represent a symbol of our own creation from dust. This reminder of our temporary time on Earth is made visible by the ashes. This is not a time to be fearful though, as Paul reminds us: “In an acceptable time I heard you, and on the day of salvation I helped you.” Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” (2 Cor 6:2). Though we may return to dust, an eternal hope in Christ is palpable, and Paul encourages us to embrace this. Ashes also symbolize our human despair in sin, and the mercy we are offered by God. Ashes give us a visible sign of our need for God’s mercy. When we receive ashes, we hear, “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” Repentance is a theme of Lent, as we are called to receive the sacrament of Reconciliation during this season.
In his preparation for Lent, Pope Francis calls on Christians to celebrate life as a gift, recognize the blinding effect of sin in our lives, and see the Word of God as a gift. He says,
“Lent is a new beginning, a path leading to the certain goal of Easter, Christ’s victory over death. This season urgently calls us to conversion. Christians are asked to return to God “with all their hearts” (Joel 2:12), to refuse to settle for mediocrity and to grow in friendship with the Lord. Jesus is the faithful friend who never abandons us. Even when we sin, he patiently awaits our return; by that patient expectation, he shows us his readiness to forgive.” (cf. Homily, 8 January 2016).
Lent is a true beginning for every one of us. We are called to turn to God in His unending love for us. Jesus calls for us to accept the offer of friendship he offers us. We are encouraged to seriously ponder our relationship with the Lord in our lives. Small “conversions” in our day-to-day lives strengthen our relationships with God and with others. Lent is a time for us to really look into the depths of our hearts and examine where we are with the Lord. Are we open to His love for us, or are our hearts closed off to Him? Do we repent when we need God’s forgiveness? In preparing for the Easter Triduum, Lent rightfully asks if we can recognize our human mortality and turn to Jesus and to God the Father for hope.
As we celebrate Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season, Jesus is with us on our journey. The Gospel reading from the First Sunday of Lent recounts when Jesus is tempted in the desert by Satan after forty days of fasting. Here, we see Jesus when he is most vulnerable, forty days of fasting, but he is still able to resist the temptations of Satan. Jesus gives us a template to resist evil in our lives, and he guarantees that he will walk with us, even when we are tempted by sin. As Pope Francis said, Jesus is the “faithful friend who never abandons us.”
The psalms of Lent give us a message of the necessity of repentance and of receiving God’s mercy. In the First Sunday of Lent, the psalm reads “Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned” (Psalm 51). In the Second Sunday of Lent, we sing “Lord, let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you” (Psalm 33). An overarching message of Lent is repentance, for God is merciful and desires our hearts, no matter what our sins are.
Practically, Lent is a season of preparation for the climax of the Church, the Easter Triduum. This Lent, may we seek out God’s forgiveness in the sacrament of penance. May we recognize the presence of sin in our lives, and open our hearts to the Lord. Let us free ourselves to the love of God and meditate on the state of our hearts. I pray that we break the chains of sin in our lives, repent and embrace the message of the Gospel, and allow Jesus into our hearts this Lent, especially as we prepare to celebrate the Paschal Mystery in Easter.