The first day of Lent. It is not a day of obligation; it is a day of Fast (for those between the ages of 18 & 59) and Abstinence (for all 14 years of age or older). The most symbolic liturgical gesture of the day is the imposition of ashes on the forehead of worshipers. The ashes are blessed and imposed on the faithful within the Mass or the Liturgy of the Word, never outside any penitential action.
Ashes are a familiar Christian symbol. They indicate a variety of realities. Unattractive, dark and lifeless, ashes represent what is like to be without God. They also represent the death of anything that went through fire. Ashes in Ash Wednesday carry a twofold reminder: This popular symbol of sorrow, sadness, or penance is a demonstration of humility, an acknowledgement of human frailty, a remembrance of our mortality, conscious that we are made of dust and will return to dust. But also a more positive attitude: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” As prophet Joel says: Return to me with your whole heart. And Paul: We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. And you shall live.
The Readings: -1ª) When prophet Joel enunciated the prophecy, people were suffering from a great plague of locusts. He saw the plague not only as a punishment for sin, but also as a warning that God would come one day in judgment; therefore, he called on the people to repent. Prophet Joel tries to arouse the desire for conversion and confidence in God. The prophet points to the fact that works of penance, if not related to that inner conversion to God in love, are worthless: “Rent your hearts, not your garments [oriental symbolism of regret] and return to the Lord, your God.” For the Lord is “gracious and merciful”.
-2ª) St. Paul insists on conversion now! “For our sake, God made the sinless one into sin, so that in him we might become the goodness of God”. Jesus took away our sins. Forgiveness is available. Ask for it now! “Now is the acceptable time”. Don’t wait till tomorrow, because you are dust and to dust you will return. And this can happen the moment you least expect it.
-3ª) Matthew’s message is similar to Joel’s. External works of penance have no value in themselves; there must be a conversion to God. The Gospel shows an elaborate program and the basic conditions of our conversion. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving, like three legs of a tripod, make up the traditional practices of Lent. Prayer nourishes our spirits. Fasting disciplines our bodies, helping us to seek the Lord with greater intensity. And Almsgiving (works of charity) enlarges our hearts as we commit ourselves to the good of others.
Lent is a time when we concentrate our prayer on the double meaning of this season: conversion from our sinful ways and renewal of our baptismal promises. Frequent Participation in the Eucharist and praying over the Scripture readings (at home, in the workplace, even as you walk or relax) are helpful ways of entering into the lenten season.
Fasting is an integral part of Lent. Traditionally it has included reducing the intake of food and abstaining from meat. But why do we fast? Not because our bodies and appetites are something evil that need to be under control, but to allow our physical appetite to remind us of our spiritual hunger, our need for God. Our Lenten fasting is modeled on Jesus’ 40-day fast in the desert. Just as he fasted as preparation for his baptism and his public ministry, so we fast to remind ourselves of our baptismal commitment and the need for renewal. Fasting can take several forms. While we usually fast by eating less, we can also fast abstaining from other things: smoking, alcohol, coffee, superfluous shopping, gossip, less TV, and use the time to read, pray, visit a sickly person, etc.
Works of penance are useful, but only as “means to the end” -your inner conversion to love of God and neighbor. The ashes on your forehead have only as much meaning as you want to give them. Almsgiving to the needy is a classical way of doing penance for your sins. Make this symbolism of the ashes a meaningful beginning: a time of penance, a time of preparation to celebrate the paschal mystery of our Lord’s death and resurrection.
By these external signs, we outwardly profess our guilt before God, and thereby, prompted by the certainty that the Lord is kind and compassionate, patient and abounding in mercy, express our desire for inner conversion. They likewise represent the beginning of the journey, that will reach its goal in the celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation during the days previous to Easter.