Wear your ashes!

I once saw this posted on a student message board in the entrance of a dormitory on a college campus:

I’m not Catholic, so I’m not giving anything up for Lent, but those of you giving up alcohol; I’ve set up a collection bin outside my door.

Many people don’t know what Ash Wednesday represents nor do they know what it launches in the church calendar.

Many people have no idea why we walk around on Ash Wednesday with dirty black smudges on our foreheads.

First, it’s not a smudge. It’s supposed to be a cross drawn with ash. However, some of the people administering the ashes are a little better artist than others. Either way, it gets the job done.

Second, the ashes represent our mortality and are an outward sign of our sinfulness. Ashes symbolize penitence and the frailty of human life. But why would anyone want to be reminded of this? Perhaps because it’s true. We are indeed mortal – we are dust, and to dust we shall return (Gen 3:19). We are sinful too. And in a world that constantly says “if it feels good, do it” and suggests that a guilty conscience is just one more thing we need a prescription for, we definitely need this healthy dose of reality.

There is something much more important that must go along with this, though. It always helps to put everything we do in the Church in context with the most important event in the Church’s history – the resurrection of Jesus Christ or Easter.

In this case, Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent which is preparation for Easter. And real preparation for Easter isn’t done with travel plans, fervor over the Sunday afternoon meal, and a resolution to eat less chocolate. It’s done in your soul.

When we look in the mirror on Ash Wednesday and see that black smudge on our foreheads, we should be reminded that, no matter what, we are still sinners in need of constant conversion. It is the Church calling us back once again to the graces of our baptism, to do penance, and amend our lives as we approach the greatest celebration in the Church — Easter. So make sure you wear your ashes…and wear them humbly. Merciful God, release us from the times of trial and oppression that we may witness to the eternal hope of grief becoming joy and life rising from death, through He who livest and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Father James Ward