Ash Wednesday comes from the Jewish practice of doing penance wearing “sackcloth and ashes.” The Old Testament tells us how the people of Nineveh, the Syrian King, Queen Esther and others fasted wearing sackcloth and ashes, Also, in the early Church, Christians who had committed serious sins were instructed to do public penance wearing sackcloth and ashes. The prophet Joel in his Old testament book insists that we should experience a complete conversion of heart, and not simply regret for our sins. We are invited to assimilate the true spirit of fasting and prayer.
We need to purify and renew our lives during the period of Lent by repentance, which means expressing sorrow for sins by turning away from occasions of sins and making a right turn to God. We need to express our repentance by being reconciled with God daily, by asking for forgiveness from those whom we have offended and by giving unconditional forgiveness to our neighbors who have offended us.
We need to do prayerful fasting and little acts of penance for our sins, following the example of Jesus before his public ministry. Fasting reduces our “spiritual obesity” or the excessive accumulation of “fat” in our soul in the form of evil tendencies and evil habits. It also gives us additional moral and spiritual strength and encourages us to share our blessings with the needy.
Today, when the priest, dipping his thumb into ashes (collected from burnt palms of the previous Palm Sunday), marks your forehead with the sign of the cross, saying the words, "Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return" or “Repent and believe in the Gospel” – keep in mind that you are mortal beings and our bodies will become dust when buried and ashes if cremated and our life-span is very brief and unpredictable. This “ash sign” is then a strong warning that we will be eternally punished if we do not repent of our sins and do penance. It is also a loving invitation to realize and acknowledge our sinful condition and return to our loving and forgiving God with true repentance, as the prodigal son did.
We enter into Lent, which should be for us a time for personal reflection on where we stand as Christians and how well we are accepting the gospel challenges in thought, word and deed. It is also a time for us to assess our relationships with our family, friends, and the other people we encounter, especially in our parish. We should examine what positive contributions we are able to make to other people’s lives and what we can do in the community to help eradicate the abuses which are part of our society.
We need to convert Lent into a time for spiritual growth and Christian maturation by participating in the Mass daily or a few days in the week; setting aside some part of my day for personal prayer; reading some Scripture, alone or, better still, with others; setting aside some money that I might spend on myself for meals, entertainment or clothes and giving it to an organization which takes care of the less fortunate in our society; abstaining from smoking, alcohol and other evil addictions; receiving the sacrament of reconciliation in Lent; participating in the “Stations of the Cross” on Fridays; doing some acts of charity, kindness and mercy every day in the Lent.
We need to use Lent as a time to fight daily against the evil within us and around us: Repenting and fighting against temptations and evil is a lifetime’s task. Jesus did not overcome Satan in the wilderness; he achieved that only in his death. Lent reminds us that we have to take up the fight each day against evil within us and around us, and never give up. Jesus has given the assurance that the Holy Spirit is with us empowering us so that final victory will be ours through Jesus Christ.