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John R. DonahueFebruary 26, 2000

Ash Wednesday inaugurates not simply the 40 days preceding Easter but the whole 90-day paschal cycle, which extends beyond Easter seven weeks until Pentecost. The Lectionary cycle grew backward and forward from the central celebration of Easter. There is one mysterythe death of Jesus, his resurrection and the gift of the Spirit. One of the major contributions of the Second Vatican Council was the recovery of Lent and Eastertide as one extended celebration of Christian initiation into and rededication to the paschal mystery.

The theme for Ash Wednesday is sounded by the call to public repentance in Joel, "return to me with your whole heart; rend your heart not your garments." Ordinary life is to cease, symbolized by the fast and the assembly of all people, including newlyweds and infants. The Gospel speaks of prayer and almsgiving, which, together with fasting, make up the traditional triad of Lenten observances. Fasting and almsgiving touch on two fundamental drives of human life for nourishment and ownership. Sacrificing them involves an act of trust in God that is sustained only by prayer.

This day has become a virtual sacrament of Catholic identity, as people throng churches to "get ashes," which, paradoxically, is just what the Gospel counsels againstexternal signs of devotion.

Still, Karl Rahner has captured eloquently the meaning of this sign: "When on Ash Wednesday we hear the words, Remember, you are dust,’ we are also told that we are brothers and sisters of the incarnate Lord. In these words we are told everything that we are: nothingness that is filled with eternity; death that teems with life; futility that redeems; dust that is God’s life forever" (The Eternal Year, p. 62).

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