Forty days to prepare
On Ash Wednesday, everybody wants ashes, or so it seems. Whichever formula is used for the imposition of the ashes -- either "remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return" or "repent and believe in the Gospel" -- provides for some Lenten meditation.
On Feb. 22, 2023, crowds of people -- young and old, even very young and very old, of every ethnic background, and often from every religious practice or none, will come to receive ashes. Each one will hear one or the other of those reminders and exhortations when the ashes are imposed.
Each contains a very small kernel of teaching about Lent.
The older and perhaps more familiar "remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return" immediately reminds us of our mortality. This is not meant to be morbid but is more a call to meditate on our human condition. First, each one of us is willed and loved into existence by God; we are here only temporarily sustained in love by God. But during this earthly pilgrimage, we are given a task by that same God, to love and serve him and one another. This is not our lasting home. As the Letter to the Hebrews (cf. 13:14) reminds us: "Here, we have no lasting city." In short, then, we have whatever time the Lord gives us to be a vehicle or an "earthen vessel" or "a light set on a lampstand" for him. The reminder is really that we have a determined and limited time to be his disciple, so do it.
"Repent, and believe in the Gospel," a more recently added option, echoes a word that falls from Jesus's lips very frequently and in its imperative mood. "Repent" occurs at least two dozen times in the New Testament. Jesus, it seems, was serious about calling on us to change our lives. But change means going from one point to another. So, on Ash Wednesday, we are given the points: at receiving the ashes and then directed -- or maybe better redirected -- to the Gospel.
Wearing the ashes tells the wearer and anyone who might see the person that a promise at least to try with God's grace to become better has been made and will be worked on, not only for the Lent season, but again and again.
To help along the way, the Church invites us to give common witness to the need for a change of heart and redirection of life by our more intensified life of prayer. Many Catholics will add attendance at Holy Mass during the Lenten season as their way of praying better. Fasting, the famous "giving up," is something good set aside for something better. Giving up food or drink can also help our physical health. Not a bad deal -- increased grace and decreased waist. And giving of alms, outreach to others, materially and spiritually, could also include volunteer service. It is a tangible gift of self to others.
Throughout Lent, we are being reminded that we're also on the journey with those preparing to be baptized at Easter. Even if a particular parish would not have a baptism at the Great Vigil of Easter, the season reminds all of us who have already been baptized to recall our baptism and to renew our promises to profess and live the Catholic faith.
Some resources for Lent
Some of these will also appear in the next two articles on Holy Week and the Triduum on March 24, and for Easter on April 7.
There are many excellent resources for personal Lenten meditation and practice. They include The Little Black Book (littlebooks.org/seasonal-books/lent), "Not by Bread Alone" from Liturgical Press and "Lenten Companion 2023" from Magnificat. All have regular print versions, large print versions, and ebook formats.
For parishes, there are other resources available. Our friends at FDLC have a comprehensive resource that covers Lent, Triduum, and Easter at fdlc.org/2023/01/lte2023. It is available in both English and Spanish versions at that site -- and it is free.
Some have observed that Ash Wednesday is a bit like New Year's Day. We make all kinds of resolutions and, more often than not, by Epiphany, we've forgotten them and quit. Often, it's because too much is attempted all at once rather than little by little. Each Lent: a few more prayers; a bit more sacrifice (giving up); and more generosity towards others with your gifts.
Remember and Repent.