Lent is a penitential season in the Church and a time of interior renewal and transformation. During Lent, the Church calls us to focus more intensely on repentance, conversion, and growing in holiness. It is a time to prepare for the Easter triduum when we recall Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection for us and our sins.
As we begin Lent, we receive ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday. These are powerful reminders of our sinfulness, mortality, and humble dependence on God. By reflecting on the meaning of these ashes, we can identify things we can do to make our Lenten journey more transformative.
The ashes remind us that we are sinners.
Throughout Scripture, ashes are a sign of repentance. (Job 42:6; Mt 11:21) When we receive the ashes, we acknowledge our sinfulness and humble ourselves before God. The ashes call us to repentance for our sins and the ways we have failed to give God glory.
During Lent, we should strive to perform an examination of conscience at the end of every day to acknowledge our sins and identify the things that hinder our progress in holiness. As we contemplate our thoughts, words, and deeds, we must acknowledge that our sins are offenses against God and wound us. We need to repent of our sins and ask God for forgiveness. Then we pray for God’s grace to purify and perfect us.
One discipline beneficial to our sanctification is fasting. The Church calls us to fast throughout the year, but in Lent, the Church calls us to fast more regularly. Fasting is an act of penance for our sins (1 Sm 7:6) and a communal act of supplication and repentance. (Jl 2:12-18) Fasting can also strengthen us spiritually by helping us to have better self-control and to become more detached from worldly goods. (Mt 6:16-18)
During Lent, we are also encouraged to make other sacrifices. We can abstain from something that brings us enjoyment and pleasure (maybe a food, a drink, electronics, social media, etc.) and perform charitable acts more frequently. Fasting and making sacrifices are penitential acts and practices that help us turn away from selfishness and grow in holiness.
The ashes remind us of our mortality.
The ashes also remind us that one day we will die, and our bodies will become like the ashes we receive. But we also recognize that while this earthly life is temporary, our soul is immortal. Immediately after death, we will stand before the judgment seat of Christ, and he will judge us based on how we have lived. (Heb 9:27) Ultimately, we will live forever in either heaven or hell.
While it is good to have earthly aspirations, the most important goal we must seek is eternal life in heaven. God offers us sufficient grace to achieve this end, but we must open our hearts to him. During Lent, we can reflect on the reality of heaven and hell and ponder the life after death that awaits us. Moreover, because we hope to be with God forever in heaven, we need to ensure that our relationship with God is central to our lives here and now. Hence, a strong prayer life is vital.
During Lent, the Church urges us to be more committed to our prayer life to deepen our relationship with God. To aid us in prayer, the Church offers many devotions, such as praying the rosary. We can also go to daily Mass, eucharistic adoration, or use Lectio Divina for meditation. Prayer is a conversation with the one who created us and loves us. Through prayer, we enter more intimately into the presence of God and remind ourselves of the preeminence of the transcendent over the transient.
The ashes remind us of Christ our redeemer and savior.
When the ashes are placed onto our foreheads, the symbol of the cross reminds us of Christ’s saving act. Though sinners, God became man and freely offered himself as a sacrifice for our sins because of his love. On the cross, Christ redeemed the world and made eternal life in heaven possible. Jesus merited God’s grace and offers it to us all. By this grace, God transforms us into saints and enables us to be saved.
Lent is a time to reflect on how well we respond to God’s grace by looking for the fruits of grace in our lives. Are the virtues of charity, generosity, kindness, gentleness, peace, and joy evident? Do we love God above all things? Do we love others, especially those who disagree with us, are critical of us, or hate us? Do we live out a preferential option for the poor and marginalized? How often do we act selflessly?
Moreover, as we strive for holiness, the Lenten practice of almsgiving is intended to help us grow in virtue. Almsgiving encompasses various acts of charity and selflessness. We can donate our material possessions (money, food, and clothing) to others. We can give our time to others by accompanying them in their trials, evangelizing, teaching, or simply being present to those in need. In these acts of almsgiving, we are heeding Christ’s call to love and serve our neighbor. (Mt 25:31-46) And as we cooperate with grace, God will transform us and make us holy.
The Lenten renewal
This Lenten journey is to be a time of renewal, a time of healing, and a time of conversion. It is a time when we humble ourselves before God and recognize our dependence on him. God calls us into a relationship with him now and forever and awaits our response. As we prepare for Easter, let us reflect on our sinfulness, mortality, and the saving works of Christ. And let us open our hearts and allow God to transform us into the saints he calls us to be.