Ash Wednesday launches us into the season of Lent. The themes of the day are quite sobering. The ashes placed on our foreheads are meant to call to mind the inevitability of death, as one of the accompanying prayers reminds us: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Ash Wednesday gets its name from this devotional practice, which originated in imitation of the sackcloth and ashes worn by public penitents. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving continue to be the principal forms of penance associated with both the day and the entire season of Lent, as we are told in the Gospel.
Despite the obvious seriousness surrounding Ash Wednesday, the day need not be seen as grim. In many ways, the spotlight has shifted from preoccupation with public humiliation and death to an emphasis on change of heart and recommitment to life. The prayer now more commonly said at the distribution of ashes exemplifies this shift: “Turn away from sin, and be faithful to the Gospel.” Now the focus is less on public demonstration and more on interior conversion.
We see this shift in today’s readings. Speaking through the prophet Joel, God does indeed admonish the people to fast and to pray, but in the opening exhortation God insists: “Return to me with all your heart.... Rend your hearts, not your garments.” The importance of a genuine interior religious disposition is also seen in the Gospel passage. Almsgiving, prayer and fasting are recommended, but they are to be done in a way that changes the heart and deepens our commitment to God and to others, not in order to impress people with our devotion.
The state of the world in which we live may be calling us to these three practices, not for the sake of Lenten piety, but because they may be our only way to peace. The crushing poverty of many in our own country as well as throughout the world requires that we share our prosperity with those less fortunate. Today, almsgiving is actually a matter of justice, not charity. Recent statistics claim that 842 million people in the world are hungry. A large percentage of these people are helpless children. Today we are called to eat less so that others will be able to eat at least a little.
Finally, there are many pressing needs for which we must all pray. We should pray, for example, that we may be delivered from ethnocentrism and nationalism, which set up barriers between people and breed alienation and contempt; that we may “be reconciled to God” and may be ambassadors of reconciliation to others; that this Lent may be a time of new life for us all: that it may dawn as the day of salvation.