Jeremiah 6:16

Thus saith the Lord: Stand ye on the ways, and see and ask for the old paths which is the good way, and walk ye in it: and you shall find refreshment for your souls.


Ash Wednesday

Hear O' Man! Turn from thy sins and cling to the Gospel, for remember that thou art dust and unto dust shalt thou return.

Memento homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.

Today is Ash Wednesday. The day on which we begin the Liturgical Season of Lent. Today is (edit:) NOT an Holy Day of Obligation though it is a day of Fasting and Abstinence for all in the Church between 14 and 65, barring any infirmity.

Our society can be described as post-Christian. While we maintain the external shell of Christianity, the inner meaning has shriveled. A common example is Christmas. It is a commercial holiday, even a celebration of "life" and "goodwill," but the startling notion that the Creator of the universe took human flesh is no longer the focus. We see another example of post Christianity this week. Celebrations of marti-gras or Carnival (from the Latin carne-meat, vale-farewell) have expanded, (fat-Tuesday pun provided at no extra charge) but their connections to today, Ash Wednesday, have become vague.

The exuberance of carnival originated as a counterweight to the austerity of Lent. It pointed to something beyond haec lacrimarum valle, "this valley of tears," namely Easter, the Resurrection itself. It is important not to lose sight of that as we receive the cross of ashes on our foreheads to inaugurate these forty days of preparation.

As a help to understanding the true character of Lent, read these two sentences from Bishop St. Augustine. In his Tract on the First Letter of John he states:

The entire life of a good Christian is in fact an exercise
of holy desire. You do not see what you long for, but the
very act of desiring prepares you, so that when he comes you
may see and be utterly satisfied.

Lent ought be understood as an exercise of holy desire. Augustine points out what has become a willful blindness. We tend to fill our days with three things: work, solving problems and diversions. For most of us we work and try to solve problems (like staying healthy or cars breaking down) in order to have more time to spend on our diversions: reading, vacations, friends, meals, sports, games, TV, etc. None of those things are intrinsically bad, but become disordered when they keep us from seeking for what our souls truly long.

Lent is a time to put aside some of those diversions and get in touch with our true desire. Jesus sets out the program in the Gospel today. Before going into detail, let's clear up an unfortunate misunderstanding. More-recently, some people have concluded, especially since the sixties and seventies, that because Jesus criticized the way the Pharisee's fasted, he was down-playing fasting itself. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus assumed that his disciples would fast and up until very recent times, all Christians have understood - and acted upon - that assumption.

Fasting says "no" to the most obvious diversions in our lives. It is a paradigm (what a great word) for all other Christian discipline, denying ourselves some immediate gratification for the sake of a greater future good. This practice, in itself is abhorrent in modern culture, as today's society sees no need for any kind-of delay of anything. It is interesting that while in general we have given up the practice of fasting, almost everyone today is on some kind-of diet. Even people who are the object of resentment because they can "eat anything" and don't gain weight, unlike myself, "watch certain foods." This is not called fasting but a diet. What else is fasting, save a diet with deeper spiritual reasoning?

In this regard the discipline of Lent can be a tremendous help. Today and Good Friday are official days of fast and the other six Fridays are days of abstinence from meat. Even though this is a quite minimal requirement, I have had people ask me whether they can get a dispensation because they are attending some party of other social thing. Obviously a dispensation is out of the question because this is exactly the point of the abstinence law--to give a witness to others and to your own self. It is not such a hard requirement, is it really?

Fasting helps to expose some of our false desires. Hopefully it can help us turn to the other two penitential practices of Lent: prayer and almsgiving. This Lent, spend an hour with me a week in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. I'm going to try and make it every Monday from 11am-12pm. If you can't make it this time, spend another, but let's join our prayers together and ask for God's Will in our lives, and ask for Him to cleanse us from all our unhealthy practices and desires. And, in addition to that, join me in asking for God's forgiveness every week in the sacrament of Penance. If you think you don't need to go, remember that our Pope goes to confession once a week. If he sins enough to confess, so do you.

Let me conclude with his description of the cleansing necessary for the exercise of holy desire:

This exercise will be effective only to the extent we free
ourselves from desires leading to infatuation with this
world. Let me return to the example I have already used, of
filling an empty container. God means to fill each of you
with what is good; so cast out what is bad! If he wishes to
fill you with honey and you are full of sour wine, where is
the honey to go? The vessel must be emptied of its contents
and then be cleansed.

Welcome to Lent, brother and sisters. May it be a time of emptying and cleansing--to discover our heart's true desire.

A Little History

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Season of Lent. It is a season of penance, reflection, and fasting which prepares us for Christ's Resurrection on Easter Sunday, through which we attain redemption.

Why we receive the ashes
Following the example of the Nine vites, who did penance in sackcloth and ashes, our foreheads are marked with ashes to humble our hearts and reminds us that life passes away on Earth. We remember this when we are told

"Remember, Man is dust, and unto dust you shall return."

Ashes are a symbol of penance made sacramental by the blessing of the Church, and they help us develop a spirit of humility and sacrifice.

The distribution of ashes comes from a ceremony of ages past. Christians who had committed grave faults performed public penance. On Ash Wednesday, the Bishop blessed the hair shirts which they were to wear during the forty days of penance, and sprinkled over them ashes made from the palms from the previous year. Then, while the faithful recited the Seven Penitential Psalms, the penitents were turned out of the church because of their sins -- just as Adam, the first man, was turned out of Paradise because of his disobedience. The penitents did not enter the church again until Maundy Thursday after having won reconciliation by the toil of forty days' penance and sacramental absolution. Later, all Christians, whether public or secret penitents, came to receive ashes out of devotion. In earlier times, the distribution of ashes was followed by a penitential procession.

The Ashes
The ashes are made from the blessed palms used in the Palm Sunday celebration of the previous year. The ashes are sprinkled with Holy Water and are scented by exposure to incense. While the ashes symbolize penance and contrition, they are also a reminder that God is gracious and merciful to those who call on Him with repentant hearts. His Divine mercy is of utmost importance during the season of Lent, and the Church calls on us to seek that mercy during the entire Lenten season with reflection, prayer and penance.


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