Ash Wednesday

By   February 13, 2018


ASH WEDNESDAY Jl 2:12-18; II Cor 5:20—6:2; Mt 6:1-6, 16-18

Introduction: Ash Wednesday (dies cinerum) is the Church’s Yom Kippur or the “Day of Atonement.” Its very name comes from the Jewish practice of doing penance wearing “sackcloth and ashes.” In the early Church, Christians who had committed serious sins were instructed to do public penance wearing sackcloth and ashes.  This custom was introduced by Pope Gregory I (served September 3, 590 to March 12, 604; McBrien, Lives of the Popes, p. 96), and it was enacted as a universal practice in all of Western Christendom by the Synod of Benevento (AD 1091). Since the 11th century, receiving ashes on the first day of Lent has been a universal Christian practice. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of full fast and abstinence. Fasting is prescribed to reinforce our penitential prayer during the Lenten season.  The prophet Joel, in the first reading, insists that we should experience a complete conversion of heart and not simply sorrow for our sins.  Saint Paul, in the second reading, advises us “to become reconciled to God.”  Today’s Gospel instructs us to assimilate the true spirit of fasting and prayer.

The blessing of the ashes and the significance of the day: The priest dipping his thumb into ashes (collected from burnt palms of the previous year’s Palm Sunday), marks the forehead of each with the sign of the cross, saying the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return”or “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” By marking the sign of the cross with ashes on the foreheads of her children, the Church gives us:

1- a firm conviction that a) we are mortal beings, b) our bodies will become dust when buried and ashes if cremated, and c) our life-span is very brief and unpredictable;

2- a strong warning that we will be eternally punished if we do not repent of our sins and do penance; and

3- a loving invitation to realize and acknowledge our sinful condition and return to our loving and forgiving God with true repentance as the prodigal son did.

Ash Wednesday message: We are invited to effect a real conversion and renewal of life during the period of Lent by fastingpenance, and reconciliation.

 I- We are to do prayerful fasting: a) by following the example of Jesus before his public ministry, and b) by imitating the king and the people of Nineveh (Jon 3:7), who fasted in sackcloth pleading for mercy from the Lord God; of the Syrian King, Ben Hadad (I Kgs 20:31-34), who did not fast, but wore sackcloth and begged Israel’s King Ahab for his life); of Queen Esther who fasted, put ashes and dirt on her head and wore “garments distress” instead of her royal robes, begging God to save her people(Est 4:16); of the soldiers of Judas Maccabaeus who fasted so greatly they felt too weak to fight (1 Mc 3:17); and of St.  Paul who observed “frequent fastings” (2 Cor 11:27).

(Historical note: In the past, the Greek Orthodox Christians had 180 days of fasting and the Orthodox as well as Catholic Syrian Christians had 225 to 290 days of fasting every year.  The Roman Church also had a number of fast days. Technically speaking, fasting is now only required on two days, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday in Lent.  In the United States, in addition, abstinence alone is commanded on all Fridays of Lent).

Fasting:   True fasting is “tearing one’s heart and returning to God” with true repentance for one’s sins (Jl2:13).  It is “breaking unjust fetters, freeing the oppressed, sharing one’s bread with the hungry, clothing with the naked and home with the homeless, and not turning away from the needy relatives” (Is 58:6-7).

Advantages of fasting:  a – It reduces the excessive accumulation of “fat” in our soul in the form of evil tendencies and evil habits (=spiritual obesity).

b – It gives us additional moral and spiritual strength.

c – It offers us more time to be with God in prayer.

d – It encourages us to share our food and goods with the needy.

e – “There is joy in the salutary fasting and abstinence of Christians who eat and drink less in order that their minds may be clearer and more receptive to receive the sacred nourishment of God’s word, which the whole Church announces and meditates upon in each day’s liturgy throughout Lent” (Thomas Merton).

II – We are to lead a life of penance because:

1 – It is the model given by Jesus.

2 – It was his teaching: “If any one wishes to follow me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me” and“Try to enter through the narrow gate.”

3 – Theological reasons: a) it removes the weakness left by sin in our souls, b) it pays the temporary debt caused by sin, and c) it makes our prayers more fruitful.

III – We are to enlarge our hearts for reconciliation.

By receiving the ashes, we confess that we are sinners in need of the mercy of God, and we ask forgiveness for the various ways in which we have hurt our brothers and sisters.  In the recent past, our Catholic community has experienced acute suffering caused by the scandalous behavior of a few of our spiritual leaders.  Lent is a time for forgiveness and reconciliation.  Let us allow the spirit of forgiveness to work its healing influence in our parishes and families.  God bless you.

Ash Wednesday agenda: By Almsgiving, we highlight others as being more important than ourselves and give ourselves to them as Jesus gave Himself to others. By Prayer, we highlight God as being most important in our life, magnifying Him, humbling ourselves (thus realizing the distance between Him and us), and trying to come to come closer to the Lord. By Fasting, we discover our personal self and see who we really are. Cutting, pruning and disciplining ourselves will be part of this job. Doing all these three things with joyful heart and mind will prepare us to rise with Jesus. (Fr. Raj).

Anecdotes: 1) Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign? Some of the senior citizens here today can remember a song that was popular exactly 47 years ago this year.  In 1971, a group from Canada called the Five Man Electrical Band had a hit called  The song is about how signs are always telling us what to do, and the chorus says, “Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?” Almost five decades later, the question it poses – “Can’t you read the sign?” — is one we might ask ourselves today. We are going to be signed with ash in the sign of our Faith, the cross. “Can’t you read the sign?” The cross of ashes means that we are making a commitment – that we are undertaking Lent as a season of prayer and penitence, of dying to ourselves. It also describes our human condition: it says that we are broken and need repair; that we are sinners and need redemption. Most importantly, it tells us that, as followers of Jesus Christ, we are to carry our crosses. It also reminds us that we are dust and ashes – mortal human beings carrying an immortal soul. ()

2) The Potato Salad Promise: Tony Campolo tells about a Church that one day every year celebrates student recognition day. One year, after several students had spoken quite eloquently, the pastor started his sermon in a striking way: “Young people, you may not think you’re going to die, but you are. One of these days, they’ll take you to the cemetery, drop you in a hole, throw some dirt on your face and go back to the Church and eat potato salad.” We may not like to acknowledge it, but someday, every one of us will have to face the “potato salad promise”, that we will all die. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…..”

3) Kill the Cyclops in you: The Cyclops is that strange monster of Greek mythology with one big eye in the middle of its forehead.  We pretend to ignore the truth that, for 325 days of each year, we are all Cyclopes because there is ONE GREAT BIG “I” right in the middle of our heads!  If we are skeptical about this assertion, we might watch our words for one day, from morning to night.  What’s the first thing we think about each morning?  “What am I going to do today?  How will I do it?  What will happen to me today?  How will I feel today?”  I, I, I.  And all day long, what do we say to people?  We say things like, “I think this” and “I think that” and “I agree” and “I disagree” and “I like this” and “I don’t like that” and “I just want to say…”  I, I, I.  And what’s the last thing that we think about at night?  “I wish that so-and-so would stop doing thus-and-such to me” and “I really did a good job today” and “I wonder what I’ll dotomorrow.”  The problem with seeing with one eye is that we’re half blind. Everything looks flat and two-dimensional because with only one eye, we have no depth-perception.  Consequently, we go wrong in assessing people.  In Greek mythology, the Cyclops was killed when Odysseus and four of his men took a spare staff of the Cyclops, hardened its tip in the fire and used that to destroy the monster’s one big eye.  It is precisely this that we must do on Ash Wednesday. With two strokes of his thumb smeared with ash on our forehead, the priest will cross that “I” out of our head.  By this sacramental ritual we are asked to take that “I” at the front of our mind and cross it out by “self-denial” and “self- mortification.”  Doing so will help us to see the beautiful creatures of God all around us and replace “I” with “You.”  (Condensed from Fr. J. K. Horn)