February 24, 2017

Reflection on Ash Wednesday, Matthew 6:51-6, 16-18

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017

By Father Bernard Bourgeois

Joel 2:12-18; Psalm 51; 2 Corinthians 5:20–6:2; Matthew 6:51-6, 16-18

"Rend your hearts, not your garments, 
and return to the Lord, your God." (Joel 2:13) 

Ash Wednesday is one of the most significant religious holidays of the year. The faithful will come to church in great numbers to receive ashes on their foreheads. “Remember you are from dust and unto dust you shall return.” These will be the words of the priest or minister as ashes are drawn in the form of a cross on each person. In the heart of the cold of winter, these stark words will draw people from the warmth of their beds and homes. Ash Wednesday inspires more people to come to Mass than many other religious holidays.

Why is Ash Wednesday such a draw for so many people? Christians need to hear these words and feel the ashes on their foreheads from time to time. This sacramental is the reminder that each person is in need of redemption. And there are no serious Christians who have deluded themselves into thinking that redemption, though a gift of God through Jesus Christ, should not require some effort on their behalf.

Ash Wednesday ushers in the Paschal Season, which is comprised of Lent, Holy Week, and Easter. This entire season celebrates the passion, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ, which is the reason for the coming of Christ altogether. The last few days of Christ form the most important event of human history; the moment salvation came to the human race.

Traditionally, Lent is the season of preparation for these great mysteries. It is a penitential time in which the disciple of Christ takes time to pray, to give alms, and to fast. All three of these practices will help the Christian follow Christ ever more closely. The goal is to shed what is in the way and realize that in the end it is only Christ that matters. Spend time this Lent in prayer.

Participate in Mass more often, possibly even daily. Make time in your schedule to pray the rosary, to read and pray the words of Scripture, to make the Way of the Cross, or to pray in whatever your form of prayer is. The point here is that you will be making time for the Lord in your busy schedule, not so much the actual words you say or read. Ultimately, prayer is the gift of time. As you visit relatives and friends, you give them time. It is your most precious gift. Give time to the Lord this Lent. Rearrange your life to give him “prime time,” not time when you are sleepy or caught in traffic. Get to know Jesus better by reading the Gospels and deepen your relationship with God by praying over the Psalms. Give to the Lord the gift of your time.

The second focus of Lent is to be generous, or give alms. As in prayer you give the gift of time, in giving alms you give of what you have. Finding new ways of being generous is not hard to do. If you have little to give, you can always give time to help those in need.

Fasting is another important focus of Lent. Here Christians traditionally “give things up” for Lent and do not eat meat on the Fridays of Lent. Most would agree that not eating meat on Fridays is not the same sacrifice it once was, as meatless meals are common in these days of healthy eating. So the follower of Christ is called to fulfill this rule but also to go beyond it. How can you fast during Lent? All fasting is to lead you closer to Christ, otherwise it is pointless. Might you fast from TV, or from the Internet, or from some other pleasurable activity? If you fast from these things, spend the time in prayer or in spiritual reading.

The Gospel chosen for Ash Wednesday reminds the follower of Christ “to be on guard against performing religious acts for people to see.” Our fasting, praying, and almsgiving are not about what others see or getting our names on plaques. The point of all of these activities is to stir up within the person a tremendous love for the Lord. Praying, fasting, and almsgiving are ultimately about time and space; it is in their practice that the disciple will find time and space for Christ. The first reading from Joel reminds the Israelites and all who follow God “to rend your hearts, not your garments….” The journey of Lent is an interior journey in which the person seeks to find Christ. It is not about what others see. Spend this Lent in prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and open your hearts and minds to his loving presence. In doing this you will walk with him to Golgotha and find yourself at the empty tomb of Easter, filled with joy and hope.

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