“Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, weeping, and mourning (Joel 2:12).” These words from the book of the prophet Joel are heard in the first reading at Mass on Ash Wednesday. This gives us a glimpse as to what the holy season of Lent is about – preparing our hearts to be reconciled to the Lord and returning to Him.
The season of Lent lasts about 40 days and, as just mentioned, is a time of preparation. We can see the significance of “40 days” as a fitting time of preparation in the Bible when Moses spent 40 days on Mount Sinai before he received the Ten Commandments from God. Even more fitting, is the example of Christ spending 40 days of prayer and fasting in the wilderness before starting his public ministry.
During this holy season of Lent, we prepare in a special way for the celebration of Christ’s resurrection at Easter. Returning again to the prophet Joel, this period is marked by a spirit of fasting, weeping and mourning.
The ashes we receive on Ash Wednesday are a good reminder of this. We see the use of ashes and rending or tearing one’s clothing in the Old Testament as a sign of mourning and penance. In the book of Esther, Mordecai “rent his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, wailing with a loud and bitter cry” when he heard the king’s command that all the Jewish people were to be destroyed (Esther 4:1). Also, in the book of Jonah, after the prophet preaches repentance to the town of Nineveh, we are told that the people of that town “proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. Then tidings reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, and covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes” (Jonah 3:5-6).
Thankfully, it is no longer the custom to tear our garments. This is also seen in the book of the prophet Joel: “Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord” (Joel 2:13). Fasting and the use of ashes, however, still remain the custom in the Church today.
Furthermore, the use of ashes is a very rich symbol and is not limited to emphasizing penance and mourning. When we receive the ashes during Mass, we generally receive them on our foreheads in the sign of a cross. This shows that we belong to Christ and brings to mind the signing or mark of the “tav” that was “put on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations” that took place in the city of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 9:4).
The ashes also remind us of our mortality. This is clearly seen in one of the formula’s we hear: “you are dust and to dust you shall return.” This reminds us that as we will eventually face death, we need to repent of our sins and be reconciled to God before it is too late. The time to do this is now! “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2).
The most common and efficacious way of being reconciled to God for us as Catholics is to frequent the sacrament of reconciliation by going to confession. By being sorry for our sins, having a firm purpose of amendment, and by confessing them to Christ through the priest in confession, we follow the Lord’s command to return to him with our whole hearts. This is a wonderful way for us to enter into and make our journey through Lent as we prepare for the great celebration of Holy Week and Easter, truly embracing a spirit of penance, fasting, almsgiving and prayer. May this be our best Lent yet!
Br. Patrick Mary, MFVA