Today, the Church begins the observances of Lent. Lent is a period of time during which the Christian faithful are called to enact the practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. The purpose of these practices is to prepare Christians to receive the great and mysterious revelations of Holy Week. It is during Holy Week that the Church participates in the passion, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus.
The mysterious revelations of Holy Week are experienced in the rituals, devotions and Masses that are offered, and all of which come to a startling culmination in the full force and intensity of what is called the Holy Triduum- three great days of solemn worship. These three days are known as Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday and the three days culminate in the celebration of the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus from the dead.
Lent is not an end in itself, but it is a preparation for Holy Week.
But also, Lent is NOT just meant to impart comforting religious ideas, make you healthier through better nutritional choices, or engender good will by being generous to your favorite charitable causes. You don’t need a special time of year to do any of that. The practices of Lent are meant to prepare Christians for worship- to prepare the faithful to attend Mass and to do so with a renewed sense of appreciation, reverence and understanding.
The goal of Lent is our participation in the Church’s worship with renewed vigor and vitality.
In order for the practices of Lent to be effective, we must repent.
Repentance means that we make a fundamental acknowledgement about ourselves that is always true for everyone without exception.
This truth is that we are all sinners.
We have all sinned and our sin is evident in what we have done and in what we have failed to do.
What is sin? Sin is our NO to Christ. Christ invites us to be his disciples, he gives us a mission, and gives up his life for us so that we might share in his divine life forever. If we accept his invitation, the mission, and receive his divine life, then we are truly his disciple and we have a relationship with him. This relationship is not a matter of an idea or a feeling, but of a way of life and it truly becomes real when we do what Christ asks us to do. What does he ask us to do?
His request of us is expressed succinctly in the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Say YES to the works of mercy and you say YES to Christ.
If we say NO to Christ… If Christ’s invitation is met with a refusal… This is sin and we must repent.
Repentance expresses our sorrow for our NO to Christ and further expresses a renewed willingness to say YES to what he asks us to be and to do.
If we do not repent, our profession of Faith becomes false and despite the appearances of virtue, we are alienated from Christ and living in opposition to his Gospel. An unwillingness to repent has consequences that are difficult to bear and terrifying in their outcome.
The Christian Faithful accept ashes and wear them on Ash Wednesday as an external sign of their internal repentance.
The ashes are NOT intended as a vague ethnic or cultural symbol. There is nothing magical about the ashes. The ashes are NOT a sign that you are a participating member of a faith-based community.
The meaning of the ashes is austere, direct and simple: if you accept the ashes you are saying to the Church that you are willing to repent of your sins and prepare yourself to receive the great revelations of Christ which will be given during Holy Week.
The Scriptures warn us today about hypocrisy in regards to our profession and practice of the Church’s Faith. We are warned to be true to our word, keep our promises, and not use our Faith as a means of appearing to be something that we are not.
The ashes of Ash Wednesday are a sign that we intend to be true to our word, keep our promises, and be faithful to Christ. The ashes are a sign that we will say YES to Christ.
If you receive ashes today, do so in good faith.
Don’t say YES to Christ when what you really mean in NO.