Cold hard facts. Those are the words that (hopefully) over 1 BILLION Catholics will be reminded of today as we receive ashes on our foreheads. It is literally an in your face reminder that you are dust and need to repent. We all do.
Why ashes? They're an ancient sign of biblical repentance that was on again and off again in the Old Testament but later referred to by Jesus when he spoke of repentance in "sackcloth and ashes" in Matthew 11:21 and Luke 10:13. More on the history of Ash Wednesday and the meaning of ashes HERE.
As the newly appointed Archbishop of New York Timothy Dolan so eloquently reminds us from a 2007 lecture:
"Maybe the greatest threat to the church is not heresy, not dissent, not secularism, not even moral relativism, but this sanitized, feel-good, boutique, therapeutic spirituality that makes no demands, calls for no sacrifice, asks for no conversion, entails no battle against sin, but only soothes and affirms."
Too often we need reminding of the elephant in the room, so to speak - our mortality. The wages of our sin is death. That physical return to ashes. But as much as the ashes remind us of our physical mortality, it also reminds us of the hope and promise of our baptism. Our Baptism is the key to Lent because it is only through baptism that we come to share in Christ's own death, burial, resurrection and life everlasting!
It was John the Baptist's voice crying out in the wilderness telling us to repent for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand and to prepare the way of the Lord and make His paths straight. Did John the Baptist speak softly and soothingly so as to not offend someone? No way! Not saying anything at all would be a greater offense to God. So why are we more worried about offending one another over trivial matters and not worried more about offending God? Where did that come from?
John the Baptist didn't sit at a mediation table, didn't wordsmith his lesson plan with soft-speak so as to not hurt anyone's feelings or offend their sensibilities. No, it was an IN YOUR FACE call to repent not only to the sinners on the streets, but right up to the poorest example and biggest sinner of the time King Herod himself. (I think there's a lesson in here!)
We are called to Reconciliation with God. We offer up to God our sorrow for having sinned against Him, pray to be mindful of our sinful nature, ask for and receive forgiveness and to refrain from the nearness of sin. Three ways we do this are through prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
The fact is that we shall all return to dust. Some sooner than others. Some unexpectedly. Some tragically. Since we don't know the day or the hour, we are reminded to pray always. "Prayer is the raising of one's mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God." (CCC 2259) and it should always be a part of our daily lives.
There are many ways that we can increase the prayer in our lives during Lent that we can continue all year long. Increasing how often we pray, learning new prayers and learning how to sit silently in reflection, being still and listening to God's answers.
One great way is to pray the Holy Rosary together as a family every night. Perhaps you can learn a new prayer or perhaps learn the Hail Mary in Latin if you don't already know it.
FASTING AND ABSTINENCE
>In fasting, we partake only of one full meal on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and guess what? We survive! Fasting and Abstinence teach us that we are not subject to our bodily desires, but subject to the will of God and our strength is in Him!
Abstinence is deliberately doing without something. The church calls us to abstain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent but we typically choose to abstain from other things we enjoy as a sign of our penance and unity with Christ's suffering.
People always speak of what they will "give up" for Lent. Soda, chocolate, cigarettes, caffeine, candy, sweets, other excesses and so many other things that are enjoyed. Those are all well and good and both spiritually and physically healthy, but let's take a deeper look. It's not just that you stop doing something for those 40 days. It's that you are taking something unnecessary out of your life that you have become accustomed to (some earthly desire or another) and it causes you some discomfort, some small suffering that you can then offer up to God.
Overindulging in Carnival or Mardi Gras before Lent in a very real sense defeats the purpose of Lent, as does hoarding what you are abstaining from so you may overindulge on Sundays or after Easter.
Fasting and abstinence also reminds us in an obese and overfed America to be mindful of the poor and the hungry so let's also take that a step further and take the food that you would have normally eaten and donate that to the poor because "..unto whomsoever much is given, of him much shall be required" (Luke 12:48) and "Amen I say to you, as long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me. " (Matthew 25:40)
It is at this time that we are reminded by our hunger and reminded by our walk with Christ for 40 days in the desert, that there are those with far less than us. It is for us then to not only give to the poor as much as we are able. In giving to the poor we must be always mindful that our reward awaits with those who see us. If men know that we have given then our reward shall come from men. If only God knows that we have given, then our reward shall come from God. Pretty much a no-brainer there, yet how easy it is to fall into the trap of having your name posted somewhere for a large donation you gave. Or getting that little brass plaque with your name on it.
Remember, it's not what you give up for Lent, but rather what you give up to God for Lent!
I sincerely hope that during this season of Lent, each of you will use this time of repentance, abstinence, fasting and prayer to explore your faith further and deeper than ever before. I pray that each of you will learn how to be more like Christ and less like yourself. I wrote this prayer for today. I hope it is worthy.
Lord, we humbly pray for strength and guidance us as we walk these 40 days with you, that in finding you we may lose ourselves. Let these ashes renew our baptism and remind us that without you we are forever dust. May our sins be washed away forever in your Blood that we may be made worthy of your death and share in your Resurrection and Life Everlasting. Amen
From Our Home and Hearts to Yours,
God Bless You and Happy Ash Wednesday
Bob & Rosana Cavalcante