Today, as you’re out and about, you may notice some of team Catholic, or maybe even a few catholic “light” (do Episcopalians do ashes… 367 points to the person who can tell me first) running around with dirt on their foreheads. I know what you’re thinking… “there go those crazy Catholics… candles… incense… now ashes? What’s with their obsession with fire related materials?”. I know, from the outside, we don’t always make sense. So if you’re curious, read on.
First, how do ashes end get there? It’s all very non-violent. We receive ashes in the middle of mass on Ash Wednesday-- it’s done by all of us lining up communion style and then a Priest or lay minister makes the mark of a cross on our foreheads with the ashes (which are, coincidentally, made from burned palms from Palm Sunday… full circle, eh?) and says, “remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return”. Basically, this mark reminds us and all who see us that we belong totally to God—He created us from dust and in the end, we’re all going to die. At first glance, this does seem incredibly morbid. However, this kicks off a whole season (Lent) of focusing on our death because, as we all know, death isn’t the end but the beginning of eternity. So, when you run into Catholics sporting ashes today be sure to thank them for reminding you and everyone else that we’re all going to die. Throughout Scripture, ashes have been a sign of repentance, so this is also us getting real old-school in the way that we are showing sorrow for our sins.
So, this is the beginning forty days of Lent. (Not to be confused with the stuff on the carpet or in your little brother’s belly button, as the youth group learned last week). What’s the deal with that? Why do we “give stuff up” or not eat meat on Fridays? When we give stuff up, we train our will. Sin is, essentially, saying “yes” to ourselves and “no” to God. When we give stuff up, whether it be chocolate, coffee, the snooze button or Facebook, it’s us saying “no” to ourselves. The idea is that this is training our will so that today we’re saying “no” to ourselves when we want chocolate so that tomorrow, when we’re tempted to gossip, we can say “no” to ourselves then too. I love the analogy my Mom uses-- she describes these little deaths to ourselves as “pin-prick martyrdom”. Most of us won’t be called to give our whole mortal lives for our faith, but these moments of death to ourselves help to strengthen us in our walk with Christ cause let’s just be honest… It’s often very hard to say “no” to ourselves. We’re actually called to not just “give stuff up” during Lent but to step it up in 3 areas: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. It’s neat, cause when we sin, we offend God, we hurt ourselves and, hurt our community. Prayer helps our relationship with God, fasting helps to train ourselves and almsgiving helps our community… not that this “undoes” our sin or in some way “fixes” it, but it gives God room to strengthen the areas we’ve allowed to weaken.
Lent is a time of conversion. It’s not about buying time in heaven or trying to out-do Christ’s death on the cross. Rather, Lent is about looking at where in our lives we’ve grown lazy and slack and re-focusing. It’s 40 days of us following Jesus into the desert and remembering that this world is not our final home—we’re created for eternity! We repeat Joel 2:13 over and over this season as we say, “rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God. For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment”. It’s not about “rending our garments” in an outward display, it’s about turning our hearts back to God.
I was woefully remiss in adding all the scriptural citations for ashes, so if you want to know more, check out: http://www.catholic.com/thisrock/2001/0104fea1sb.asp.
And, in case you’re curious, the readings for Mass today are: Joel 2:12-18, Psalm 51, 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2 and Matthew 6:1-18.
Hope that helps!