Ash Wednesday – A

Readings: Jl 2:12-18; Ps 51; 2 Cor 5:20—6:2; Mt 6:1-6, 16-18

If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.

In our fast-paced world, it is always a challenge to focus on our spiritual lives and the discipline required to make Lent a truly special time of personal growth and on-going conversion. Prayer, being more generous (traditionally referred to as “giving alms”) and fasting are the traditional marks of these 40 days. But, as we all know, it’s not very easy to deliberately break our negative habits, and even more so, our way of viewing things.

Lent has 40 days – ever wonder why?

Lent is the 40 day long penitential period in the Catholic Church, immediately prior to the Paschal Feast (Easter) the greatest feast in the Church. The Eastern Catholic churches call this period Great Lent.

There is a strong Biblical foundation for observing a 40 day period of penance and/or anticipation. The Scriptures are full of the significance, perhaps known only to God, of the number 40.

In the Old Testament, God punished mankind by sending a flood over the earth for 40 days and nights. The people of Nineveh repented of their sins with 40 days of fasting. The Prophet Ezekiel lay on his right side for 40 days as a precursor to the siege and destruction of Jerusalem. The Prophet Elijah fasted and prayed for 40 days on Mount Horeb. Moses fasted 40 days and nights while on Mount Sinai. Moses and the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 penitential years until they entered the Promised Land.

In the New Testament, the Lord fasted for 40 days and nights in preparation for the beginning of his public ministry.

We model our 40 day season of Lent today on this holy tradition, established throughout Salvation History, the story of God’s relationship with humanity. Most importantly, we observe these 40 days of Lent in imitation of Our Lord – the example for us all.

Very early in the history of the Church, the practices and duration of Lent became more regulated with the Church Fathers encouraging the practice of the 40 day period of fasting prior to the more intense fasting of Holy Week. By the end of the fourth century, it was well established in the Church that Lent’s duration was 40 days and that prayer and fasting constituted its primary spiritual exercises.

Unto this very day, we observe 40 days of penitential practices, typically of prayer and fasting because we take Jesus as our model, to prepare ourselves for the Paschal feast, that is, Easter. The Catechism tells us “By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.” (Catholic Catechism #540).

Ash Wednesday is the day many Christians mark as the first day of Lent, the time of reflection and penitence leading up to Easter Sunday. Clergy all over the world dispense ashes, usually made by burning the palm fronds distributed on the previous year’s Palm Sunday, making the sign of the cross on the bowed foreheads before them. As they “impose” or “dispense” the ashes, the pastor or priest reminds each Christian of Genesis 3:19: “For dust you are and to dust you shall return.”

Ashes remind us of the incredible creativity of God. We are dust. In Genesis, God fashioned humanity out of the dust of the earth. God is eternal. Human beings are not. I find it absolutely incredible that as part of the created order, human beings are allowed a glimpse of the transcendent nature of God. Dust contemplates the eternal. How blessed am I to be able to think beyond the bounds of my created self? Ash Wednesday reminds me of the limitations and the limitless God whom I worship.

Humility is at the heart of discipleship. If the theme of life is ashes to ashes, dust to dust, then how sublime can be my reality. How much can I control, oversee, change, transform? Why do I think somehow I can? Disciples rely upon their God. Only what God enables, only where there is connection, is there opportunity for change. Ash Wednesday reminds me that I must stay connected to Christ.

Ash Wednesday reminds me that my God is flesh and blood. While we all know that God is Spirit and those who worship God do so in spirit and in truth, the central doctrines of the faith indicate that Jesus is God made flesh. What does God condescend into the human condition? Jesus Christ. Condescension, not thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought to think, is a virtue exhibited by God. Ash Wednesday reminds me not to take myself too seriously.

Ash Wednesday points directly to the Cross. You can’t escape the reality of the cross. It is on the cross where death is put to death. The cruelty of humanity with all its ugliness, self-righteousness, and dominance issues are dealt with on the cross. The familiar ways of self and all its demand for gratification are put to death. Those inner voices of “feed me”, “you deserve it” and “you must have it” are confronted by the cross. No more. You were bought with a price. You are not free to play God. The cross put to death all of that so that something else might rise within my soul. Ash Wednesday reminds me to put to death “all the vain things that charm me most and sacrifice them to his blood.”

Ash Wednesday reminds me that Life is precious. While I may be ashes, I am a fearful and wonderful heap of ashes. God’s grand design is being played out in this ash heap. Resurrection is the triumph over the ashes and the transformation of dust into magnificent glory. Ash Wednesday reminds me that my life is hidden in Christ and that there is an eternal role that I willingly and thankfully play out in dependence upon God so that what is dust is swallowed up in life.

Ash Wednesday is a time for contemplation. It is good to remember the words of the psalmist, “Show me, Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is….What do I look for? My hope is in you” (Psalm 39: 4 & 7).

Lent is more than just a giving up.
It is giving… developing a greater love towards God, self and others.


Fast from worry; feast on trusting God.
Fast from complaining; feast on appreciation.
Fast from negatives; feast on affirmatives.
Fast from hostility; feast on tenderness.
Fast from unrelenting pressures; feast from unceasing prayer.
Fast from judging others; feast on Christ dwelling in them.
Fast from fear of illness; feast on the healing power of God.
Fast from words that pollute; feast on speech that purifies.

Fast from discontent; feast on gratitude.
Fast from anger; feast on patience.
Fast from personal anxiety; feast on the fullness of truth.
Fast from pessimism; feast on optimism.

Fast from bitterness; feast on forgiveness.
Fast from self-concern; feast on compassion for others.
Fast from discouragement; feast on hope.
Fast from suspicion; feast on truth.

Fast from lethargy and apathy; feast on enthusiasm.
Fast from facts that depress; feast on truths that uplift.
Fast from gossip; feast on purposeful silence.
Fast from problems that overwhelm; feast on prayer that sustains.
Fast from thoughts that weaken; feast on promises that inspire.
Fast from apparent darkness; feast on the reality of light.

To celebrate the beginning of penance, 10 inspirational quotes by Pope Francis have been provided below:

1. “The confessional is not a torture chamber, but the place in which the Lord’s mercy motivates us to do better.”

2. “Each of us has a vision of good and of evil. We have to encourage people to move towards what they think is good… Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.”

3. “Wretched are those who are vindictive and spiteful.”

4. “Fasting makes sense if it really chips away at our security and, as a consequence, benefits someone else, if it helps us cultivate the style of the good Samaritan, who bent down to his brother in need and took care of him.”

5. “Lent comes providentially to reawaken us, to shake us from our lethargy.”

6. “Although the life of a person is in a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God.”

7. “I believe in God – not in a Catholic God; there is no Catholic God. There is God, and I believe in Jesus Christ, his incarnation. Jesus is my teacher and my pastor, but God, the Father, Abba, is the light and the Creator. This is my Being.”

8. “A little bit of mercy makes the world less cold and more just.”

9. “We all have the duty to do good.”

10. “We must always walk in the presence of the Lord, in the light of the Lord, always trying to live in an irreprehensible way.”

Fr. Gaspar Fernandes, OFM Cap.

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