The great Season of Lent is primarily a time of profound interior renewal. It is a time to do something about the problem of sin in our lives. We make an evaluation of the condition of our own hearts, listening deeply to what the Lord is saying to us, as well as observing our inner reactions to people and situations. As we become aware of our alienation from the Lord, we turn back to him in humble repentance. As we recognize our broken relationships with one another, we seek reconciliation.
We begin with the imposition of ashes, a symbolic gesture which has many levels of meaning. For the Jews, putting ashes on one’s head was one of the traditional signs of penance. At times they also put on “sackcloth and ashes” to show that they were in mourning. Today we use blessed ashes as a two-fold sign: it indicates our spirit of repentance and it serves as a reminder of our own mortality.
These two meanings are reflected in the two different statements the priest may make as we come forward for the ashes. He may say: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel,” the very words with which Jesus began his public ministry (Mk 1:15). Or he may say: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These words are taken from Genesis 3:19, where the Lord reveals to Adam the consequences of his sin. The ashes remind us, then, that we still bear the sin condition of our first parents. No matter how much we exercise and follow a healthy lifestyle, our bodies will someday end up as dust and ashes. Our spirits, however, will live on. We are to take reasonable care of our physical bodies for they are sacred dwelling places of God, but it is our inner life that we must care for most diligently, for our souls will live eternally.
The ashes are not magic. By themselves, they will have no effect on us if we make no effort to change. Today’s gospel guides us in the way of this change by giving us three basic disciplines to practice: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. This passage, taken from the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, gives us the fundamental blueprint of the Lenten journey – and of the whole Christian life. By prayer we practice love of God, deepening our relationship with him. By fasting, or self-denial, we purify our self-love, which is so often excessive and which leads to slavery to the demands of the flesh. (The Church observes Ash Wednesday as a sacred day of fasting and abstinence.) By almsgiving, or charity, we put into practice our love of neighbor.
In obedience to the words of Jesus, the Church has always counseled every Christian to follow the three disciplines the Lord gives us today. In the fifth century, St. Peter Chrysologus preached a famous sermon on this topic: “There are three things, my brethren, by which faith stands firm, devotion remains constant, and virtue endures. They are prayer, fasting and mercy. Prayer knocks at the door, fasting obtains, mercy receives. Prayer, mercy and fasting: these three are one, and they give life to each other. Fasting is the soul of prayer; mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. Let no one try to separate them; they cannot be separated. If you have only one of them or not all together, you have nothing. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others you open God’s ear to yourself” (cf. Liturgy of the Hours, Office of Readings, Tuesday, 3rd week of Lent).
These three disciplines are essential and precious. However, if we accept them only in a general way, they are ineffective. Vague sentiments like ‘I will pray more,’ or ‘I will try to be more kind’ will not bear any fruit. As we begin the Forty Days, we need to focus on some specific practical changes and commit ourselves to them. The Lord will guide us if we ask him to show us the parts of our lives which are most in need of conversion. Very often what will come to mind are the patterns of sin which we should be fighting constantly. We should also be ready to identify things which, although they may not be sinful, are interfering with our relationship with the Lord. Then we should decide upon small, specific sacrifices which are hidden in the heart. In our decisions to pray, for example, we may decide, I will attend Mass three times a week, or I will pray the Rosary every day of Lent. Fasting can include any number of little sacrifices, such as not using a favorite gadget or eliminating one’s favorite dessert. When considering loving acts of charity, we may think of such things as, I will visit or call a particular person on a specific day each week.
The Lord reminds us to keep all our religious acts secret – not that we hide them due to shame, but we are to guard against doing things merely for others to see. In Lent, we focus on what only God can see, our hearts. Let us dedicate ourselves to him more deeply in this sacred time of grace, always aware that he does not need what we offer to him, but we are in great need of what he offers us, his mercy. O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.
What are my inner reactions to people and situations? In what ways am I alienated from the Lord and his people? Am I willing to repent and believe in the gospel of Jesus?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 13, no. 3. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.