Last Sunday morning, I visited some of our religious education classrooms. I always enjoy visiting our children and youth while they are learning more about our Catholic faith. In most of the classrooms, the teachers were talking about Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the holy season of Lent, our season of repentance and preparation for Easter. I thought about the quote from the prophet Daniel concerning the disciplines we practice during Lent, how he wrote of turning to the Lord to seek in his help in his prayers, with fasting and sackcloth and ashes. I asked the students about why someone would publicly wear uncomfortable sackcloth, about why someone would publicly wear a smudge of ash on his forehead. When we sin, when we turn away from the Lord, when we rupture our relationships with God and with our brothers and sisters, we are to repent and turn back to the Lord, we are to reconcile and mend and renew. As you will hear proclaimed to you in a few moments when you receive a smudge of ash on your forehead, as a disciple of Christ, you are to repent and believe in the Gospel. When we receive that smudge of ash on our foreheads and keep them on throughout the day, we recognize that our lives on earth will pass away. During Lent, we are to strive to refocus our lives on God. During Lent, we are to look toward God’s kingdom and the values it represents, rather than focusing solely on the kingdom we here now on earth.
The ashes we receive on our foreheads today symbolize our fragility and our mortality, they symbolize the need all of us human being have to be redeemed by the mercy of God. Jesus warns us in the Gospel today that our righteous deeds and Lenten devotions and the ashes we receive on our forehead are not just to be an empty show we put on for others, not just an external action. Jesus warns us that our Lenten devotions and righteous deeds are to come out of our humility and simplicity, rather than out of our pride and arrogance. Our Church uses these ashes we receive today to symbolize that attitude of internal penance that we are called to during the holy season of Lent. While Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation, it is one of the most popular days for the faithful to come to church in our liturgical year, for the significance of what Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent symbolize resonates deeply in the souls of the faithful.
Today, we start our journey of accompanying Jesus on his way to the cross, to his death and resurrection. We are called to practice our Lenten disciplines, to fasting and abstaining for eating meat on certain days, to praying the stations on the cross on Friday with our community of faith, to reaching out to others in works of charity and mercy. We start our journey of 40 days in the desert with Jesus today. May this holy journey prepare us for the Easter joys to come.