Today is Ash Wednesday. This means that today is the day that faithful Christians will begin the observances of Lent. Lent is a period of time that the Church sets aside for Christians to prepare themselves to observe the great days of Holy Week and to receive the great mysteries of Holy Week with renewed appreciation and reverence.
The great mysteries of Holy Week are all about God, and how God in Christ reveals who he is, how he wants us to understand him, and how he wants us to live.
Remember, it is during Holy Week that the Church commemorates and participates in the events that culminate in the passion, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Lent comes to its fulfillment in Holy Week. Holy Week comes to its dramatic fulfillment with the great celebration of the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus on Easter Day and then throughout the Easter Season.
Lent is not merely a kind of faith-based self-improvement project. Instead, the end towards which Lent is directed is to prepare us for Holy Week. This means that it is the purpose of Lent to prepare us for worship, to receive through the Church a privileged encounter with the Lord Jesus, Crucified and Risen from the dead, that happens in the solemnity, song, story and sacraments of Holy Week and Easter.
The ashes we receive today evoke the penitential character of Lent. This means that Christians are willing to repent of our sins and seek to make amends for what we have done and what we have failed to do. Sin can be understood as a refusal to love God and our neighbor. Repentance means that we are willing to admit our refusals to love. Concretely, this happens in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which is a privileged encounter with Christ, who acts through his priest to forgive us and offer us healing and hope. During Lent, Christians seek to encounter Christ in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
The ashes we are marked with also can serve as a visible reminder of our Baptism, an event that marked us forever as belonging to Christ and set apart for mission. Christ chose us to be baptized and nothing we do ever do can “unbaptize” us. Once we have been baptized we are marked as belonging to Christ forever.
Those who belong to Christ are meant to live in such a way that those who meet a Christian are meeting Christ. Thus to be called a Christian means that you are someone who is trying to be Christ-like in what you say and in what you do.
Being a Christian also means that you have mission, and though this mission expresses itself in different ways for different people, it means for all Christians that they set about doing the kinds of things for others that Christ did. This means for most of us that we seek to fulfill the demand of love, even if our efforts to love are not appreciated or accepted. The specific work of our mission might be different for different people, but essential to everyone’s mission is the fulfillment of the demand of love.
The ashes we receive today will mark us publically as the baptized, as Christians, but it will be our willingness to fulfill the demand of love that will demonstrate whether we are truly living as a Christian or not.
Being a Christian is a way of life that we learn and thus during Lent Christians re-commit ourselves to basic practices through which we learn the Christian way of life. These practices are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Through our prayer we dedicate time to being present and available to Christ. It is through prayer that we take the time to be with Christ, to get to know him. Christ desires to be our friend and offers us friendship with him. We cannot rightly call Christ our friend if we barely know him or if we never have any time to be with him.
Through fasting we test our desires and remind ourselves that all nothing in this world will ultimately satisfy us because God has created us for heaven, and this world is not all that there is, but is leading us to a world that is greater and more important.
Through almsgiving we imitate Christ’s generosity to us. Christ gave us his life, a gift that we could not earn and did not deserve. In our almsgiving we give gifts to people who did not earn and do not deserve our gifts. As Christ gave his gift to us, so we give our gifts to others.
Finally, this Lent the Church also celebrate the Year of Mercy, designated as such by our Holy Father, Pope Francis.
During the Year of Mercy we are asked to renew our relationship with Christ in his Church by going out on pilgrimage, participating in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and by accomplishing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
It is customary during Lent for Christians to engage in small gestures of self-sacrifice, giving up favorite foods or entertainment. This is a good thing, but this year, might I recommend that instead of or in addition to these kinds of small gestures, you also seek to accomplish the practices Pope Francis has asked the faithful to accept during the Year of Mercy:
Make pilgrimage to a shrine or church.
Participate in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Learn about and seek to accomplish the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
Lent is a solemn time, but it is not a sad time. Lent is not an end in itself, but the beginning of something new. Lent is not meant as a kind of grim punishment, but as the opportunity to receive yet another chance.
Opportunity awaits! Take the chance.