Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church. However, it is always one of the most well attended liturgies of the year. That is because we all know we need to heed the invitation it offers.
By Deacon Keith Fournier
1 March 2017
We are sinners, in need of ongoing conversion.
Ash Wednesday as a Holy Day of INVITATION.
An invitation is given from the Holy Spirit, acting through the Church, the Body of Christ, inviting us into forty days of prayer, repentance, fasting, interior house cleaning, conversion and charity. It is a time to begin anew, in the Lord.
But, we need to accept the invitation. To exercise the gift of our human freedom. To choose to turn, once again, to the Lord Jesus Christ as our Savior.
On this Ash Wednesday I will stand alongside of the Priest to administer the ashes to the faithful who come forward. Together, we begin again the 40 day journey of repentance and conversion known as Lent. The term is derived from an old English word which meant the lengthening of days. We move out of the cold barrenness of winter and, as the days grow longer, long for the promise of New Life which comes with Spring.
Spiritually, by entering into the Desert with Jesus Christ, we find the Way, through the Hill of Calvary and the empty tomb, to real freedom. The purpose of this season is twofold; to be freed from sin and disordered appetites in order to be freed for a New Way of living. Lent, for those willing to receive it, is meant to be a gift to each of us as individuals. A time for reflection, repentance and contemplation, geared toward conversion.
However, it is also a communal calling. By embracing its practices of prayer, fasting and alms-giving voluntarily, we are joined to billions of other Christians in every Nation on the earth, in a bond of solidarity which bears witness to the truth of the Gospel. This witness is crucial in a world embracing its own forms of self-imposed slavery and desperately in need of the freedom which Jesus Christ alone can bring.
The Order of the Ash Wednesday service offers exhortations to be said by the Priest or the Deacon as the Ashes, the burnt Palms from the prior year’s Passion/Palm Sunday, are rubbed into the penitent’s forehead. Repent and believe the Gospel or Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel or Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.
Those ashes being rubbed into your head have been long associated with repentance, or turning away from wrongdoing. They serve as a sign of our sincere sorrow for offending God and our new commitment to living a lifestyle of repentance and conversion.
Being marked with those ashes begins our Lenten observances, practices and disciplines. Those practices continue for forty days until the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, which officially begins the Triduum, a Latin word for three days. The Catholic Bishops of the United States explain it this way:
The summit of the Liturgical Year is the Easter Triduum–from the evening of Holy Thursday to the evening of Easter Sunday. Though chronologically three days, they are liturgically one day unfolding for us the unity of Christ’s Paschal Mystery. The single celebration of the Triduum marks the end of the Lenten season, and leads to the Mass of the Resurrection of the Lord at the Easter Vigil. The liturgical services that take place during the Triduum are the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, the Good Friday of the Lord’s Passion and the Mass of the Resurrection of the Lord three Holy Days.
During these forty days called Lent the Lord Jesus Christ Himself invites us to walk with Him on the Way of the Cross. This simple but solemn Ash Wednesday service is an invitation every year to all who have the spiritual eyes to see its opportunity and open hearts to receive its invitation. Like all gifts, it is up to us to accept it and open its potential through our response, our free choice, to follow the way.
To an age which has become intoxicated on a counterfeit notion of freedom which tells people they can choose to do whatever they want, the Catholic Christian Church rightly insists that some choices are always and everywhere wrong. She teaches that what is chosen not only affects the world–but changes the chooser. These words from Saint Gregory of Nyssa, quoted in the Catechism as well as in Saint John Paul II’s Encyclical Letter, The Splendor of Truth, give us insight concerning our choices:
Now, human life is always subject to change: it needs to be born ever anew. But here birth does not come about by a foreign intervention, as is the case with bodily beings, it is the result of a free choice. Thus we are in a certain way our own parents, creating ourselves as we will, by our decisions.
Freedom has consequences–and our choices not only affect the world around us, they change us–making us become the persons we become. The capacity to make choices is what makes us human persons. It reflects the Imago Dei, the Image of God, present within every human person, and being restored by grace into His Likeness.
As the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council wrote in their wonderful document on the Mission of the Church in the Modern World, Authentic freedom is an outstanding manifestation of the divine image within man (Gaudium et Spes, “Joy and Hope,” #17).
The Catholic Catechism addresses the sobering implications of the wrong exercise human freedom when it reminds us that Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself (CCC, 1861.).
In other words, what we choose truly matters. Authentic Human Freedom can never be realized in decisions made against God, against the good, against what is true, and against the Natural Law. In fact, such a misuse of freedom leads us into the slavery of sin.
Authentic freedom is exercised in reference to the truth concerning the human person, the family, our obligations in solidarity to one another and the real common good. The Catholic Catechism reminds us that:
As long as freedom has not bound itself definitively to its ultimate good which is God, there is the possibility of choosing between good and evil, and thus of growing in perfection or of failing and sinning. This freedom characterizes properly human acts. It is the basis of praise or blame, merit or reproach. (CCC #1731, 1732)
That is why the fullness of authentic human freedom is ultimately found in a relationship with the God who alone is its source. This God is a Father–and He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to set us free, by doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. We need to be saved from sin and saved for a new way of living. The Apostle Paul reminds us that if any man is in Christ, he is a New Creation (2 Cor. 5:17).
This happens by grace and through faith in Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:8,9).
Because of the effects of sin, our freedom was fractured. We often do not always choose what is right, true and good. Only the splint of the Cross can restore it. That splint needs to be applied to our broken lives, our broken relationships, our broken promises and our disordered appetites and passions. We need to be saved, set free, and Lent calls us to participate in that process called conversion.
In his encyclical letter on Faith and Reason, Saint John Paul wrote:
It is not just that freedom is part of the act of faith: it is absolutely required. Indeed, it is faith that allows individuals to give consummate expression to their own freedom. Put differently, freedom is not realized in decisions made against God.
For how could it be an exercise of true freedom to refuse to be open to the very reality which enables our self-realization? Men and women can accomplish no more important act in their lives than the act of faith; it is here that freedom reaches the certainty of truth and chooses to live in that truth. (Fides et Ratio, Faith and Reason # 13)
Choosing the good is the pathway to the realization of the fullness of authentic human freedom, human flourishing and real happiness, beginning in this world and fulfilled in the new world to come. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:
The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to the slavery of sin. (Cf. Rom 6:17) (CCC 1733)
Ash Wednesday begins a period of protracted prayer, penance, meditation and ascetic practices–acts befitting our true repentance. It is no accident that Lent falls in this transition time in the seasons, 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.
Our Baptism calls us to live in a naturally supernatural manner. That requires our continued cooperation with grace. We are invited to turn away from sin and then turn toward the Lord. The Church as mother and teacher often uses the symbols of nature to point us toward and help to obtain a supernatural effect. These symbols, such as the ashes which will be placed upon our heads, must be seen with the eyes of living faith.
In other places in the universal Church, this penitential season is called the Forty Days. That phrase also has a deeply symbolic meaning. The Scriptures speak to us on many levels. One level which we moderns in the West are often not aware of is its use of numbers as symbolic language. Symbols open us to a deeper truth. For example, it is no accident that a child is usually in the in the womb for forty weeks, the fullness of the term. Forty stands for a time of fulfillment or completion.
There are several forty periods in the history of Salvation found in the Old Testament of our Bible. For example, 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 Ninevah for Forty days. and of course, the Israelites wandered in the desert for Forty years.
However, the greatest significance of the number comes as God’s entire plan of salvation was taken up and fulfilled in the mission of Jesus Christ. In Him is revealed the New Israel and the New Law. He is the New Lawgiver. He, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. The world was created through Him (John 1). He is the Word Incarnate. Through His Incarnation, creation begins again. He gives the forty day Lenten period its penultimate meaning.
This One in whom the fullness of the Godhead dwells shows us the very meaning of our lives. He fully reveals man to himself in the words of the Council Fathers (GS #22). He also shows us the great dignity to which we are now called as New Creations in Christ–and actually capacitated (made capable) by grace, to become–by the working of the Holy Spirit.
This forty days calls us into the desert with Jesus. There, He who knew no sin (2 Cor. 5:21), a man like us in all things but sin enters into the temptations we face and shows us the way to overcome them. (Heb. 2 and 4) He was was tempted of the Devil for Forty days in the desert (Matthew 4:2). In Him we can now learn how to overcome temptation and progress toward the freedom to which we are called.
After a saving life of selfless love, He mounted the Second Tree of the Cross and opened His arms to embrace the world which had rejected God. Now, His voluntary sacrifice of Love complete, the Tomb is empty. Death, the final enemy and result of sin, has been defeated and the fruits of the redemption are being borne!
He was seen in His resurrected glory by his disciples for Forty days (Acts 1:2). During that time he continued to prepare 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. To that Church he entrusted His Word, His Spirit and Sacramental grace.
Our Forty day observance of this Holy Season of Lent inserts us, every year of our life, into this stream of God’s action in human history. It invites us anew to participate in the great mystery of living and saving faith in the Savior in order to appropriate it more fully and make it our own.
Each of the forty day or forty year periods mentioned above was preparatory. So it can be for us as enter each year into Lent in the path of our life on this earth, which is meant to prepare us for the life to come. The Church, our Mother and Teacher, invites us to empty ourselves through fasting, abstinence, prayer,charity and alms-giving.
We can do battle with the disordered appetites and passions which are a bad fruit of the effects of sin. The purpose of all of this is to be set free, made new, and filled afresh with God’s Divine Life and Love.
During Lent we engage in spiritual warfare (See, 2 Cor. 10:4, Eph 6: 14 – 16). We do battle with the world, the flesh and, yes, the Devil. Satan, the father of lies (John 8:44), is the enemy of Christ and therefore the enemy of all who seek to attain the fullness of salvation in Him.
During these forty days we are invited to say yes to every grace offered to us. However, the choice is ours. Through grace we can can progress in our continuing conversion. We can more closely follow Jesus Christ who is the leader and perfecter of our faith.
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us of the leadership Jesus provided as an example for us in these words:
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)
Lent is an invitation, given every year, to more fully receive God’s grace–His Divine Life–and be changed ever more fully into the very image and likeness of the Savior, Jesus Christ. If we enter into Lent with our whole person, it can actually draw us, at its’ closure, into a deeper experience and embrace of the power of the Resurrection, beginning right now and opening into eternity.
Liturgy is the public work (that is what the Greek root word actually means) of the faithful. Lent is a powerful liturgical season. However, to borrow an adage from the modern recovery movement, it only works if you work it. We need to embrace the Lenten practices and work them.
Those practices of piety, asceticism and extended prayer and worship challenge us to “turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel” and then enable us to do just that. When Lent is voluntarily embraced it opens us to a deeper experience of the freedom which Jesus Christ has obtained for each one of us. Because it was for freedom that Christ set us free (Galatians 5:1,2).
Every Lent is also a reminder to us of our own mortality. Remember you are dust and to dust you will return is a time for us to pause and reflect. In an age drunk on self worship, a reminder of the brevity of our days should draw us to our knees.
From that posture of prayer and penitence we can look up at the Cross which bridges heaven and earth. There at the altar of the New World, Christ became our Paschal Sacrifice. There we can climb into His wounded side and find the healing, forgiveness and new life for which we long.
After receiving the ashes, we leave the Church as penitents and pilgrims. We publicly acknowledge our need for God’s forgiveness. Let the Holy Spirit shine the Light in those dark places. Make a good confession, pray more, genuinely fast, live in God’s Word, frequent the Sacraments–and most especially the Holy Eucharist.
Embrace the poor and needy – in all of their manifestations–and you will find it is Jesus in your arms. During these forty days we begin to walk toward the celebration of the Easter Triduum, the three High Holy days. Now, it is time to be signed with ashes. Ash Wednesday Invites us once again to turn away from Sin and be Faithful to the Gospel–in order to turn toward the Freedom of the sons and daughters of God.
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Credit: Jennifer Balaska, wikimedia commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACrossofashes.jpg
Deacon Keith A. Fournier, the Editor in Chief of Catholic Online, is also the Founder and Chairman of Common Good Foundation and Common Good Alliance. A Catholic Deacon of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia, he and his wife Laurine have five grown children and seven grandchildren. He is a human rights lawyer and public policy advocate who has long been active at the intersection of faith and culture. He served as the first and founding Executive Director of the American Center for Law and Justice in the nineteen nineties. Deacon Fournier is the Dean and Chaplain of Catholic Online School, a project of Your Catholic Voice Foundation.