It’s that time of year again.
Ash Wednesday looms. Lent approaches.
And when I say that, I’m sure everyone is like, “Yippee! Penance!”
No one really likes self-denial. Although, can you really call giving up chocolate for 40 days (not including Sundays) suffering? There’s people in the world that don’t eat for days. Lent is not hardship.
But a strange thing will happen soon…at least it’s strange to me.
People will go to Ash Wednesday Mass. In droves! They will pack the churches. You don’t think that’s strange? They don’t have to go. Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation. You’ll never see crowds packing the church for the Feast of the Assumption…or even on Sundays.
All year long people complain about going to confession, giving up meat on Fridays (outside of Lent), and praying regularly. But on Ash Wednesday they fast all day, voluntarily go to Mass, and walk around with a black smudge on their foreheads like a badge of honor.
What is it about Ash Wednesday?
I think the symbolism of that Mass presents a powerful reminder of something we all know but don’t normally want to admit. We’re not all that.
Ash Wednesday draws together the essential themes of Lent and delivers them in a visible, tangible, and highly charged way. Ashes, deserts, sin, the call to repentance, and the promise of deliverance. Those are powerful images. The only thing missing is sackcloth.
Fasting, sackcloth, and ashes are the traditional signs of repentance. When Jonah announced the destruction of Nineveh, the king called a fast, put on sackcloth, and poured ashes over his head so that God would see their change of heart and spare them. Could you see President Obama repenting of his anti-life stance then donning sackcloth and ashes?
When the lives of the Jews in Persia were at stake, Esther put on sackcloth and ate nothing for three days so God would save them.
The symbolism of Ash Wednesday says we’re not sufficient. We’re in over our heads. We sin and don’t deserve God’s help. However, we are throwing ourselves down at his feet and asking him to rescue us. And that really is the Gospel.
Deep down, we all know we’re not completely together, no matter what we public face we project. We screw things up. We make a mess. We need help with life and can’t do it alone. Most of the time we don’t turn to God for that help. But on this one day, Ash Wednesday, a lot of us recognize the need for God’s mercy and grace to get by.
That is really the essence of Lent. A spiritual reset. Wipe the hard drive clean, reinstall the operating system, and start fresh.
Lent is a purification. At the end is Christ’s Resurrection…and yours provided you die with him.
Repent and believe. Ash Wednesday sets the stage.