Ash Wednesday, 2 Mar 22
Today we begin the Great Forty Days of Lent, based on Our Lord`s time of reflection and temptation in the Wilderness of Judea after he had been baptised by John the Baptist in the River Jordan and before he began his three year ministry which was mostly in Galilee.
Ash Wednesday is, of course, marked by the fact that we have ashes placed on our foreheads, usually in the form of a Cross both to remind us of the invisible cross placed on our forehead at our Baptism when we were united as brothers and sisters of Our Lord Jesus Christ and also to remind us that it is by Christ`s Cross that we are redeemed and set free.
I have to say that serious as this day is it always causes me to smile as Jesus, in the Gospel reading, tells us: “When you fast do not put on a gloomy look as the hypocrites do: they pull ong faces to let men know they are fasting. I tell you solemnly, they have their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that no one will know that you are fasting except your Father who sees all that is done in secret….” And so on. And here we are marking ourselves with the Sign of the Cross in Ash so that all may see!!! In a sense it is a contradiction but more importantly it is a SIGN of the importance of this Holy Season for us as Christians.
It is a sign of the tangible nature of our life on Earth – dust we are and unto dust we shall return – but it is too an assurance of the Saving Grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ which is freely offered to us by reason of His perfect self-offering on the Cross on that first Good Friday. And so the imposition of ashes in that form of a cross is both a call to penitence and sorrow for our sins but also a joyful season of growth in the spirit and hope for the Life Eternal which Jesus promises. Lent is a season that is not a burden but rather a period in the Christian year that is meant to help each one of us to a more effective Christian lifestyle.
Saint Augustine of Hippo, that great Doctor of the Church, described the Christian Life as “an exercise of desire,”. The Christian life does not ask us to suppress the normal desires of human life but rather to raise, purify and sanctify them! If our desires and ultimate values are for this world only then they are far too small; God wants us to have so much more – no less than His very self. In this season we should tuned-in to the higher desire of a deep-down longing for God. The Church follows the teaching of Jesus who shows us the way of prayer, fasting and alms-giving. The first of these is, of course, Prayer which cements our daily relationship with the living God which is, of course, eternal but which begins in this life or it does not begin at all! There is our shared prayer which is centred on the Mass which is the continuation of the loving sacrifice of Jesus Christ which opens heaven to us. Then there is our personal prayer – the daily practice of our friendship with God as we open our hearts to Him day by day in the times we set aside to listen to Him and in our talking to Him. We need to remember too, as one spiritual giant has put it: “Pray as you can and NOT as you can`t!” Whilst we all have much in common each of us will approach prayer in our own way, sometimes using methods others have taught us, but often in the silence of our own hearts. As we heard from today`s Gospel reading: “…whenever 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.”
The second call of Ash Wednesday and, indeed the whole of Lent, is to Fasting and that is something in Western Society that is not particularly popular unless it is to make ourselves look more beautiful by losing weight and when we are encouraged to appreciate our food and the conviviality that comes about by sharing meals with family or friends and acquaintances not to say special occasions. There is nothing wrong, of course, with that as long as we don`t teeter into gluttony. Some of the great spiritual writers, who did seriously undertake fasting for the benefit of their souls were not necessarily corpulent or like bean poles. Indeed, it is side that the great Dominican, St. Thomas Aquinas, was so large that in the refectory of his friary he had to have a large piece of the table cut out so that he could sit with his brethren at meals. But fasting as a discipline is good for it helps to concentrate the mind for prayer and meditation and to go without food from time to time helps to make us aware of those who do not have sufficient food through poverty or other lack of resources. In this case any money that we might save from consuming less might well be spent on food aid or water-aid for others. In any case the practice of voluntary self-denial will sharpen our appetite for the things of God.
This brings me to the third call of Ash Wednesday which is, of course, almsgiving. Most of us have times of generosity when we want to give of our resources to help both needy individuals and good causes so Lent is a good time to rid ourselves of some of the clutter in our lives and that might give us the vision to do more to serve the needy, not to earn praise and thanks, but rather to imitate God`s generosity and goodness to us.
To go back to St. Augustine he sees Lent as a time of cleansing as preparing us to practice holy desire, which is possible only to the extent that we free ourselves from infatuation with the things of this world. It is like filling an empty container. “God means to fill us with what is good” so cast out what is bad! If God wishes to fill us with honey and we are full of sour wine, where is the honey to go ? The vessel must first be emptied and cleansed. Yesterday was Shrove Tuesday and being shriven means having made our confessions and received absolution and penance in order that we might begin Lent having been cleansed – and the pancakes etc. that mark the day with a particular tradition were to show that eggs and foodstuffs were used up before the Season of Fasting began.
The ashes we use today are made from burning some of the Palm branches and Palm Crosses from former Palm Sundays. On the first Good Friday Jesus died and was buried in a tomb, a place of decay and the place of dust – yet at Easter he was raised from the dead to the New Life.
Our ultimate destiny, as the baptised Children of God, is to share in the Risen Life of Jesus and so becoming conformed to the image of Christ. As we journey towards our destiny we hear the call, in our prayers and as we read the scriptures and, indeed, in the silence of our hearts, to grow more fully into the image of God`s Son, which is itself a call to turn away from sin- to repent.
We have had put before us, in today`s gospel reading, the essentials for growth into the image of God`s only Son: “a greater love of God (prayer), a truer love of ourselves (fasting) and a more generous for others (almsgiving). By taking Ash Wednesday seriously we commit ourselves to build our lives on those three loves, so that we may more fully become all that God, through His grace, is calling each of us to be.