THEME: THE SIGNIFICANCE OF ASHES
READINGS: Joel 2:12-18/ 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2 / Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
The forty (40) days of Lent begin on Ash Wednesday with the signing of ashes. Many Catholics endeavour to partake in this ritual. Even some non-Catholics attend Mass on Ash Wednesday for the sole reason of receiving ashes. What, then, is the significance of the reception of ashes? In a March 5, 2019 internet post, Rev. Msgr. Charles Pope of the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington DC gives five meanings of the reception of ashes in Lent, viz., humility; a reminder of death and a call to wisdom; ashes are a sacramental that points to the sacrament; a sign of a true change; and a summons to faith and a new mind. Building on some of the ideas of Msgr. Charles Pope, this homily considers four aspects of the significance of ashes. They are: our humble origin/nature; death: our humbling end; an acknowledgement of our sins and need for God’s mercy; and our resolve for a new beginning.
Our humble origin/nature: When pleading with God to spare the people of Sodom for the sake of its righteous inhabitants, Abraham humbly acknowledged that he was unworthy to speak to Him: “I am nothing but dust and ashes” (Gen. 18:27). The combination of ashes and dust in Abraham’s statement takes our minds back to our humble origin in creation: “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground” (Gen. 2:7).
Therefore, as we receive ashes at the beginning of Lent, we are reminded that, like the dust which we and even animals trample underfoot and the ashes, which like it, are worthless waste, our material self is of a humble nature. This is a reminder which should make us begin our Lenten exercises with humility in the sight of God.
Death: Our humbling end: Not only is our beginning humble in nature, but death which is our earthly end is also humbling. Regarding the latter, God told Adam after he had sinned: “you [shall] return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). It is, therefore, this humbling end of our earthly life which we are reminded of by the words which accompany the reception of the ashes: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Beloved, if both our beginning and end are humble, then, we cannot but live the time in between them in humility. In other words, humility is one trait of our DNA with which God created us all. Therefore, He expects us all to lead humble lives. That is why, He blesses the humble but is displeased with the proud: “for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14). So, let us seek God’s grace in this Lenten season to humble ourselves before the Lord in order to receive His blessings (cf. James 4:10; 1 Peter 5:6).
An acknowledgement of our sins and need for God’s mercy: When the news of the preaching of the prophet Jonah “reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes” (Jon. 3:6). The sitting in ashes was one of the ways by which the king and his subjects acknowledged their sins and pleaded for God’s mercy. Therefore, to receive the ashes at the beginning of Lent is to acknowledge that we have sinned and we need God’s forgiveness.
Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the evening of His resurrection, entrusted the ministry of God’s mercy and forgiveness to the Apostles: “He breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’” (John 20:22-23). This mandate, by the power of the same Spirit, has been passed on to the successors of the Apostles who exercise it, in a special way, in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. Let us, therefore, in this Lenten season, go to the priests and confess our sins.
Our resolve for a new beginning: Besides the instances in the Old Testament, Jesus also sees the use of “sackcloth and ashes” as signifying repentance. For instance, He chastised the unrepentant communities of Chorazin and Bethsaida, saying: “Woe to you, Chorazin! woe to you, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes” (Matt. 11:21). Repentance entails not only the acknowledgement of sins and the plea for God’s forgiveness, but the firm resolve to begin anew our relationship with Him, with the help of His grace.
When the King and people of Nineveh wore sackcloth and sat in ashes, they were truly repented in their minds and hearts. So, God who sees our minds and hearts forgave them. Beloved, our plea for God’s forgiveness is incomplete if deep down in our hearts and minds we have not decided to turn away from our sins and begin anew. Therefore, as we receive the ashes as a plea for forgiveness, let us also resolve to begin anew our relationship with the Lord.
Conclusion: Beloved, as we receive ashes to begin the 40 days of Lent, may the humility trait of our DNA be refreshed through almsgiving in which we associate with the needy; may the awareness of our sins and plea for God’s forgiveness be enhanced through confession and fasting; and may our resolve to begin a new way of life be fostered through prayers. Finally, then, may God forgive our sins and restore our relationship with Him. Amen!
By Very Rev. Fr. John K. Louis