For Christians worldwide, today marks the beginning of the season of Lent — initiated by the somber of observance of Ash Wednesday — with its reminder that we are all children of God and as such, spiritual beings who happen to have a physical body, one that will return to dust once our purpose on the physical plane is fulfilled. Ash Wednesday also invites believers to spend the next 40 days (46, including Sundays) drawing closer to Him through acts of faith, self-denial and service to others. But why do Christians receive ashes on their foreheads as an external symbol of their faith on this significant day? Catholic.org explains:
Following the example of the Nine vites, who did penance in sackcloth and ashes, our foreheads are marked with ashes to humble our hearts and reminds us that life passes away on Earth. We remember this when we are told
“Remember, Man is dust, and unto dust you shall return.”
Ashes are a symbol of penance made sacramental by the blessing of the Church, and they help us develop a spirit of humility and sacrifice.
The distribution of ashes comes from a ceremony of ages past. Christians who had committed grave faults performed public penance. On Ash Wednesday, the Bishop blessed the hair shirts which they were to wear during the forty days of penance, and sprinkled over them ashes made from the palms from the previous year. Then, while the faithful recited the Seven Penitential Psalms, the penitents were turned out of the church because of their sins — just as Adam, the first man, was turned out of Paradise because of his disobedience. The penitents did not enter the church again until Maundy Thursday after having won reconciliation by the toil of forty days’ penance and sacramental absolution. Later, all Christians, whether public or secret penitents, came to receive ashes out of devotion. In earlier times, the distribution of ashes was followed by a penitential procession.
While many people view Lent as an opportunity to lose weight by sacrificing fattening goodies like cake and candy, or to “give something up” (e.g. a favorite activity like going to the movies) — neither of which is wrong — it seems to me we should also balance that out by being proactive. Meaning, we should all engage in a genuine effort to actually do something that inconveniences us such as waking up a half-hour earlier in the morning to pray, driving an elderly neighbor to a doctor’s appointment, or reading to sick children in a hospital. All of these acts simultaneously involve “giving something up” — possibly time spent watching TV or indulging in your favorite hobby — in order to be an earth angel for someone who needs our help.
Perhaps there are relationships within your family or your circle of friends that need some extra care. If it’s not possible to make amends for whatever reason, lift that person up in prayer. If they’ve hurt you deeply, forgive them — whether in your own mind and heart, or in person. As I’ve learned, forgiveness does not mean excusing someone else’s bad deeds; it just means releasing the hurt and anguish and setting yourself (and the offender) free. I’ve practiced this with many who’ve been a part of my life, whether short-term, long-term, for a season or for a lifetime, and believe me it works. From former classmates who teased me through my school years to old boyfriends who disappeared without a trace, to close female friends who were like sisters one moment, then strangers the next — I have practiced forgiveness. And it has been a very freeing experience as I’ve learned to let go of the old and embrace the new.
Finally, for Christians Lent is a time to reflect on the things we’re humbled by and grateful for, most especially, God’s willingness to send his only begotten Son to earth for our salvation — and to do our very best to follow his example. Of course, we’ll stumble and fall but we are always saved by forgiveness, as long as we seek it out with authentic, heartfelt remorse.
When I reflect upon Lent, it also reminds me to give thanks for the woman who made it possible for Jesus to inhabit an earthly body — Mother Mary. With one act of obedience borne of faith, she helped to change the course of humankind forever.