On Ash Wednesday, we begin the liturgical season of Lent. During this 40-day period, we prepare ourselves individually and collectively to celebrate Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and resurrection from the dead. Today’s readings help to orient us to this season.
Why do we begin Lent by wearing ashes? The first reading from Joel offers insights. The prophet describes an event called the Day of the Lord, a day associated with judgment and destruction. To avoid its consequences, Joel tells his community to perform outward expressions of mourning, such as fasting and weeping (Jl 2:12). These actions enable the people to correct their behavior and focus on improving their relationships with God. Wearing ashes, which can be a sign of mourning, unites us as we embark on this solemn period. The ashes remind us to be introspective and to behave in a way that nurtures our relationship with God. As the second reading proclaims, “we are ambassadors for Christ as if God were appealing through us” (2 Cor 5:20). Today we physically show our beliefs with ashes, but our actions throughout the year must be our actual hallmark.
Return to me with your whole heart (Jl 2:12)
In the Gospel from Matthew, Jesus outlines three practices especially associated with Lent: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. As wearing ashes does, these acts unite the Christian community in shared practices that help us to live more intentional lives. Almsgiving encourages us to do charitable works. Prayer enables us to commune with God and one another. Fasting directs our attention away from physical needs to focus on spiritual fullness. Yet, Jesus warns that these practices should not be done in order to boast to others. We wear ashes not to show off our holiness to the world but to expose our commitment to consciously living in the manner of Christ.
Our ashes are powerfully symbolic. Made in the shape of the cross, they physically remind us of Christ’s crucifixion and death. They remind us of our own mortality, and they connect us with past liturgical celebrations. Importantly, the ashes we wear are the remains of burnt palm fronds from last year’s celebration of Palm Sunday. Burning palms to produce ashes is a sustainable practice that connects us today with past communities of believers. Our ashes should empower us to seriously embark on this Lenten journey as a community. During this season, we should take actions that foster our connections to God and one another as we prepare for the celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection.