On Ash Wednesday, bishops, priests and deacons around the world administer the ashes to the faithful who come forward to identify themselves as pilgrims on the 40-day journey of repentance and conversion called “Lent”.
The word is derived from an old English term referring to the “lengthening” of the hours of the day each year. It falls in the transition time when we move from the barrenness of winter with its long periods of darkness into the verdant new life and longer days of sunshine we call spring. This season continues for forty days until the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday. Then, the Easter “Triduum” (three days) leads us through death and into life, culminating in the victory feast of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Like all of the seasons of the Liturgical year of the Church, the key to experiencing the grace is our understanding – and our full participation. Lent is also called “the forty days”. Numbers have meaning in Scripture. For example, is it no accident that a child is usually in the womb for forty weeks, the fullness of the term. There are several forty periods of importance in the Old Testament.
The forty days Moses was on the mountain and received the Law (Exodus 24:18); the story of the spies recorded in the Book of Numbers results in their being sentenced for forty years, (Numbers 13:26, 14:34). There were forty days for the great Prophet Elijah in Horeb, (1 Kings 19:8). The prophet Jonah was sent to Nineveh for forty days, and the Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years.
The number forty points to the fullness of time in God’s saving plan. It was taken up and fulfilled in the mission of Jesus Christ, the New Israel, the New Lawgiver, the Word Incarnate, the One in whom all creation began again. There it was given its penultimate meaning. This One in whom we find the fullness of God and the fullness of our new humanity revealed was tempted by the devil for forty days, (Matthew 4:2). Then, after the great salvific act of selfless Divine Love on the Cross, he defeated the last enemy, death.
He was seen in his resurrected glory by his disciples for forty days. (Acts 1:2) During that time, he continued his preparation of the New Israel, his Church, which had been birthed from the water and blood which flowed from his wounded side on Calvary. To that Church, he entrusted his continuing redemptive mission until his glorious return.
Forty is not an arbitrary number. Our forty-day observance of the holy season of Lent inserts us into this entire stream of God’s action in human history and invites us to participate afresh every year. Each forty-day or forty-year period in the biblical accounts presaged something new. So it can be for our forty days of Lenten observance.
The Church, as Mother and Teacher, invites us to empty ourselves through various forms of fasting, abstinence and almsgiving and be filled with God’s divine life and love. We are enlisted into spiritual warfare (See, 2 Cor. 10:4, Eph 6:14 – 16), to do battle with the “world”, the “flesh” and the devil, who is opposed to our experience of the fullness of our salvation. During the forty days of Lent, we are invited to say “yes” to every invitation of grace offered to us and thus advance in our continuing conversion.
We walk the way of Jesus Christ, who is the “leader and perfecter” of our faith. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God. Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart. In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood. You have also forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as sons: ‘My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges’”. (Hebrews 12: 1-6)
The ordo (order of service) offers two forms which are to be said by the bishop, priest or deacon as the ashes, made from the burnt palms from the prior year’s Passion/Palm Sunday, are rubbed into the penitent’s forehead as a sign of their voluntary penitence; “Repent and Believe the Gospel” or, “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return”. They both remind us of our utter dependence upon God.
We were created in the image of God. At the heart of that image is our capacity to exercise our freedom. Because of sin, a wrong choice, our freedom is fractured. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: “Man’s freedom is limited and fallible. In fact, man failed. He freely sinned. By refusing God’s plan of love, he deceived himself and became a slave to sin. This first alienation engendered a multitude of others. From its outset, human history attests the wretchedness and oppression born of the human heart in consequence of the abuse of freedom.” (1739)
The Cross of Jesus Christ is the splint that fixes our freedom and restores our capacity to choose what is right. It makes it possible for us to find the only true freedom by being set free from sin and its power. St. Paul reminds us to avoid the slavery of sin. (Romans 6:17) He insists it was “for freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1). Our struggle against sin is not over. The power of sin calls us to a constant struggle against it. Lent invites us into the field of operation and equips us for the ongoing battle. (Romans 7)
Who needs Lent? We do. It is an invitation and not an imposition. It is a gift and not a burden.
That is, it can be, if we enter it with our entire person. Lent can draw us into a deeper experience of the power of the resurrection. Its focus on prayer, practices of piety, call to asceticism and almsgiving all beckon us to “turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel”. When understood and entered with true devotion, it can open us to a new experience of freedom. It is an ever-necessary reminder of our own mortality in an age drunk on self-worship.
As you receive the ashes, do so as a joyful, willing and expectant penitent and pilgrim. Together, let us embrace the Lenten season and through its practices, walk toward the celebration of the Easter Triduum, the high holy days, more prepared to receive what they offer. Then we will both experience – and be able to lead others into – the fullness of true freedom found in Jesus Christ. (John 8:36)