6 March 2019
Today we begin in a solemn fashion the holy season of Lent by observing fasting from food and abstinence from meat and by gathering in prayer, for a ritual that goes back to Jewish practice: the imposition of ashes. Ancient biblical symbols of penance include prayer, fasting, wearing sackcloth (uncomfortable, abrasive clothing), rending (tearing) one’s clothing, and the use of ashes.
The Scriptures give us some indications and can highlight at least three particular meanings of the use of ashes. The Book of Genesis (3:19), in a formula used with the imposition of ashes today, takes us back to man’s creation and the fall. “Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” This tells us that the ashes are a symbol and a reminder of mortality. Man was formed from the dust of the earth and God breathed life into him. Yet, because of sin, death has entered mankind’s history. You and I inherit that original sin from Adam and Eve and we also bear individual guilt for our personal sins. Thus, the ashes remind us we are all headed in the same direction when we will return to dust through death. We come from dust and we are returning there.
Ashes also symbolize repentance. Job, though good and exceedingly blessed, finds himself encountering God who has permitted him to be tested. Job knows that he is nothing before his Creator whose ways are inscrutable. And so Job says, “therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6).
Ashes also symbolize interceding for others, doing penance on behalf of others. Daniel (Daniel 9:3) is a righteous man yet he does penance for his people. Ashes were part of his practice. The Book of Esther (14:1-3) also shows us this intercession on behalf of others using ashes. The pagan king had determined to kill the Jewish people but Queen Esther, humbles herself and her beauty, and enters into repentance and mourning for the Jewish people by covering her head with ashes and dung. (Dung Wednesday would not be very popular!).
Finally, another passage, along with Esther, shows us some history in regards to the placement of ashes as a penitential practice. Repentance for sin in the First Book of Maccabees shows us that ashes were sprinkled on the head (1 Maccabees 3:47 [appears only in the Catholic Old Testament]).
The readings today also give us two perspectives on our penance in the gift that is this holy season of discipline and serious return to God our Father. The Book of Joel shows us the public calling together of a people doing visible penance. You can’t miss that the people are doing penance: “Blow the trumpet, proclaim a fast, call an assembly” (Joel 2:15). That is like what we do today. We are doing something very public, a day of penance for our sins. Yet, Lent is not only Ash Wednesday. The vast majority of Lent is not the public visible act of penance. The vast majority of Lent fits more with the Gospel selection, the observance of penances that are hidden, private, and done in secret where we face the truth of needing to return to our Father who sees in secret.
We have strayed from God. Lent is an annual gift of training by which we admit just how far we have gone away. Just like Adam and Eve strayed and were expelled from the Garden because of their sin, we likewise have gone far away. Our sins expel us from God’s presence. We need to do serious penance to make a serious return to our Father. We often encourage the participation of children in Lent by giving up things like chocolate, or soda, or pizza. And that is well and good… for children. But as St. Paul calls us NOW to a time to receive God’s grace more deeply, St. Paul would also say to us: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways” (1 Cor. 13:11). The truth of our straying from God is not explainable by an inordinate attachment to chocolate or to pizza. No, we need to go much deeper. We need to be much more serious. We have a long journey to return to our Father and to arrive once again at the mountain of Easter, newness of life, and restored baptismal grace. But this does not discourage us because it is our Father who gives us this time of reform. It is He who desires us and who calls us to deeper life with Him. Mercy and compassion from the Father who sees what is hidden inspires us to serious engagement in this holy season. Because it is God who calls us back to Himself we have the courage to move beyond the superficial, beyond the surface, beyond what is visible and to pick up the character of the vast majority of this season: Facing more deeply the source of our separation from God and going more deeply into penance. “Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God” (Joel 2:13). Tear open your heart and get to what really has caused you to stray from God. Open that truth to God and do penance confident that He gives you this grace to make a return. He sees and longs to repay you by welcoming you into deeper life with Him now and ultimate life in the kingdom to come!