On Wednesday, March 1st, the season of Lent begins as we are marked with ashes upon our foreheads. Ash Wednesday is perhaps one of the best-known days of the Church’s Liturgical Year. Churches around the world are filled with so many people who desire the mark of the cross from the ashes. One may wonder why the ashes are so sought after both by people of deep faith in the Catholic Church as well as by those who seem to be on the periphery of Church life perhaps only coming to church on rare occasions. Ashes are not a sacrament. There is no obligation to receive them. One does not have to be in a state of grace to receive them. While only a priest or deacon may bless them, ashes may be distributed by laypeople assisting the priest and deacon. Ashes are in themselves nothing but the remains of burnt palm and truly can be considered as waste. Yet, there seems to be a call from the ashes to all people no matter how great or lesser their practice of the faith may be. It very well may be that the minimalism of what ashes are is what attracts everyone to them and why their symbolism speaks so loudly.
Everyone is entitled to receive ashes. They are a sign, no matter how minimal it may personally be, of faith. While the symbolism of ashes is very rich and speaks a great deal about the season of Lent, the mark of ashes identifies those wearing them as members of the Catholic Church. It is encouraging that so many come on Ash Wednesday in so far as it is a sign that many seek faith and spiritual values in their lives and identify the Church as the place where these can be found. It would be a discouraging day if attendance at church on Ash Wednesday and the desire to receive ashes became minimal. It would be a sad day if those who receive ashes were to wipe them from their foreheads after leaving the church so as not to be identified as Catholic. Ashes mark us all as equal before God and as worthy of His love and mercy no matter who we may be – from the Pope himself to the person who only comes to church on Ash Wednesday. To be denied ashes is to be denied a call – a call from the Lord even though we are very imperfect and sinners. As Jesus so mercifully says, "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners" (Lk 5:32). Whoever receives ashes, receives not an award of spiritual distinction but a mark of being a sinner and in need of God's mercy. That is why ashes are so much sought after whether one realizes it or not.
Ash Wednesday is a wonderful day in the life of the Church. It is the beginning of a penitential season of forty days but a season which is marked as one of joy. While we take up various practices during Lent to grow in our relationship with the Lord, there is a great joy in realizing that it is the Lord who has taken our sins upon Himself in order that we might have life. There is absolutely nothing that can prevent God from loving us and bestowing His mercy upon us as long as we continue to journey to Him amid the struggles, failures and sins of our lives. As the ashes are placed upon our foreheads, we are reminded that we are also dust and will return to dust, but it is God's life that makes the difference and gives us meaning and purpose. We are reminded that we need to turn away from our sins and to turn more to the Good News of Jesus Christ in order to experience the joy which only He can give us. As so many people gather on Ash Wednesday, we realize that we are not alone and that we are part of God's family, the Church, which is divine but also a human one with its frailty. It is only God who infuses that family with His life and love so that we can be redeemed in Him. Ash Wednesday is a wonderful one because we realize that at the conclusion of the Lenten season at the Easter Vigil, new members will be added to the Church as God's family through the sacraments of initiation. His family continues to grow.
Each year the Pope gives a special message for the Lenten season. This year, Pope Francis has given us a wonderful reflection entitled, The Word is a Gift. Other Persons are a Gift. In his message, Pope Francis reminds us that Lent is a new beginning which leads us to Easter and that we are all called to conversion during the season of Lent. Lent is a "favorable season" during which we come to terms with ourselves and the need that we all have for conversion within our lives. The practices of "fasting, prayer and almsgiving" help us in this conversion in order that we might better understand who we are and who God is in relationship to us as the center of our lives.
Pope Francis uses the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (cf. Lk 16:19 - 31) as the basis for his message. This beautiful parable reminds us of God's mercy and of our tendency not to respond to that mercy believing that other things are more important in life. The rich man forgets that he is human and believes that he is above humanity because of the gifts and treasures he had in this life. Because of this, he ignores Lazarus, a poor man, who comes to him for food. Both the rich man and Lazarus eventually die. Lazarus is taken to the bosom of Abraham but the rich man goes to Hades where he now calls upon Abraham to have Lazarus come to his assistance. Abraham makes clear to the rich man that he had lived in a way solely for himself and that now this was to be his life for eternity. It was the rich man who made the choice for his eternal life and Lazarus, the poor man, who did the same by living in the opposite manner than the selfish man.
The Holy Father stresses that the message for all of us in this parable for the season of Lent is that we need to listen to the word of God which is always present to us. We also need to respond to every other person in our life as a gift and not to ignore them because we are too turned in upon ourselves. Pope Francis tells us that, "The rich man's real problem (thus) comes to the fore. At the root of all his ills was the failure to heed God's word. As a result, he no longer loved God and grew to despise his neighbor. The word of God is alive and powerful, capable of converting hearts and leading them back to God. When we close our heart to the gift of God's word, we end up closing our heart to the gift of our brothers and sisters."
I have always been fascinated by Abraham telling the rich man that even if someone were to rise from the dead and go to speak to his brothers they would not listen to him. Abraham stresses that if they will not listen to the prophets, they would not listen even if someone were to speak to them from eternity. Sometimes we can think that if an extraordinary thing happens, we would be more open to God's presence among us. His word is present to us and speaks to us. He is alive in His word and if we do not listen to that we are not going to listen to anything else. His word reminds us of the wonderful gift of His life which is present among us most especially in the people which God has given to us. Those people include our families and friends as well as those of whom we are not always aware. We need to open our hearts to all men and women as gifts from God who possess the same dignity that we do. On Ash Wednesday, as so many people with whom we are not at all familiar may come to the church, the Pope’s words are a good reminder for us.
As we heed the call of Ash Wednesday and begin the season of Lent, may the ashes remind us of God's love and mercy and that before Him we are all equal. May we listen more intently to His word each day and be receptive to all people who are gifts from God. In doing so, may we come to a greater freedom and joy within our lives and know the victory of Christ as we open our hearts more to Him.
A joyful Ash Wednesday – A blessed Lent!
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
February 24, 2017