Ash Wednesday 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. It also begins not simply the 40 days preceding Easter but the whole paschal cycle, which continues past Easter seven weeks until Pentecost. There is one mystery of the death of Jesus, his resurrection and the gift of the Spirit. It is a time when the church celebrates with joy the journey of new Christians to the baptismal font and the return of those whose life pilgrimages have led to strange detours and byways.
Today’s Gospel, like last Sunday’s, stresses the need for interior renewal and integrity of prayer and action. The traditional practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving are not criticized, but only parading them as signs of religious devotion. Lent is a time for interior renewal, but this should be incarnate in practice; this is the message of the Gospel and the wisdom of the church.
In the biblical and ecclesial tradition, repentance should be social as well as individual (in Jonah not only all the Ninevites but even their cattle are covered with sackcloth and ashes). This Lent, as we receive ashes, we might pray over the horrible symbolism that ashes have carried in our century. The Holocaust will always imprint ashes in our memories and not simply on our foreheads. Ashes were all that remained of burned-out African-American churches. Ashes are a vivid reminder of the evils of racism and hatred of the other, which seem endemic to our culture. During the jubilee year, Pope John Paul II called for and enacted rituals of repentance for our complicity, intended or unintended, in the culture of death. Lent also tells us that confession of sin and returning to a merciful God can change individuals and societies. Should we not give God a chance? This is what Lent is about.