Ash Wednesday is a day that unites all Christians. Even though it isn’t a Holy Day of Obligation for Catholics it has become a priority. Why is it so important to us? In New Orleans one could speculate that we are motivated by guilt following all those king cakes and carnival parades. But I think it is more than that. Is it fear of death and judgement? Maybe it is. But I think what we are really searching for is hope. Hope that we can be forgiven, hope that death is not the end.
To quote Cardinal Pio Laghi, “Every year on Ash Wednesday, the Church begins a spiritual journey, a renewal of her existence and a rediscovery of her life with God.” The spiritual journey Laghi describes is rooted in the words Catholics will hear when ashes are placed on their forehead on Ash Wednesday: “Turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel.” Like the Prodigal Son we should turn away from darkness, evil, and death and begin walking home towards light, goodness, and life. From this perspective the ashes become a sign of turning away from death. This is a distinct change from the older “dust to dust, ashes to ashes” approach that motivated good action based on fear of death and eternal punishment. Jesus did not base his good news on fear: Jesus preached the love, mercy, and forgiveness of God. Jesus gave people HOPE, and this is the message that the Christian faith presents to us on Ash Wednesday. It’s the Christian do-over. And, like the Prodigal Son, at some point we could all use a do-over.
But how do we go about making this change?
Growing up Catholic I learned a ritual performed before the reading of the Gospel. The words are based on the Jewish Shema prayer, the Greatest Commandment. May God be in my mind, in my words, and in my heart: In other words – in my thinking, in my speaking, and in my loving or doing. Jesus connected this Commandment written in Deuteronomy Chapter 6, to a verse from Leviticus chapter 19, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” These two commandments sum up all of God’s law: Love God in your thoughts words and actions, and love your neighbor as yourself.
So this is how we change; this is how we make Ash Wednesday really mean something; and this is how we go forward into Lent. By focusing on God’s love and rejecting negative and destructive thoughts about ourselves or others, by speaking words that are charitable and caring, by acting always for the good.
An easy message to understand; but one that takes a life of commitment and re-commitment: Turn away from death and towards life; reject fear and live in hope.