Inevitably, Ash Wednesday will be a very crowded day in our church. People will no doubt come to “get ashes.” Despite the fact that the day is not a holy day of obligation in which we are required to attend Mass—psst, please don’t tell anyone!—people will be here throughout the day looking for those ashes. Sometimes, they will even come to the rectory door at all odd hours because they don’t want to be without those blessed ashes.
If I look at this phenomenon from a positive angle, I hope and pray that people see the need for repentance and a change of life. I pray that they heed the call to conversion. I pray also that they truly open their lives to Jesus and want to turn away from sin.
The logical follow-up during the Lenten season would then be a desire to attend Mass more frequently. There should be an increase in the use of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. Time for prayer and meditation should grow. Certainly, we should see more generosity, kindness and compassion in all of us. In the end, we should be spiritually renewed and prepared for the great events of the Easter Triduum.
This is my sincere hope and prayer.
Unfortunately, there will be those who approach the ashes in a superstitious manner or with a misunderstanding that places more importance on this sacramental than it truly deserves. I used to tell my students in high school quite bluntly that ashes (burnt palm) on the forehead, in and of themselves, will not get someone into heaven. They are merely a symbol of repentance and mortality. Rather, Jesus, the Bread of Life, in the Holy Eucharist is much more than any such symbol. The Holy Eucharist is, in fact, the real, true presence of Jesus who was offered for us on the cross and who is now offered to us in Holy Communion.
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. (John 6: 54-56)
Essentially, it is my duty as one who preaches and teaches to help people to understand and to prioritize what is essential for a Catholic (the Holy Eucharist) and what is merely helpful and a symbolic reminder for us (blessed ashes). All of the seven sacraments are life-giving—in essence, imparting to us God’s grace—through various outward signs. They are opportunities to encounter Christ. We are fed, nourished, healed, forgiven, strengthened, and sanctified by our participation in these sacraments. Most notably, the Holy Eucharist and the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation are the two sacraments that we are able to and should participate in frequently.
Please take Lent seriously. Heed the call to conversion. Put into practice acts of prayer, fasting (self-denial) and almsgiving (charity).
Over everything else, fall in love with Jesus. I say this not in some superficial, romantic way but as our essential, unconditional response to the Son of God who loved us unto death.
Fr. Ed Namiotka