Wednesday of this week is Ash Wednesday, the day when thousands of people come to get their ashes. Many people who haven’t seen the inside of a church since last year will present themselves for ashes. For many it is a superstitious ritual, for others it is a good start to the first day of preparation for the most important feast of the Christian calendar.
In the Christian calendar the importance of feasts are determined by the period of preparation and celebration. Christmas though important is preceded by advent which has four weeks of preparation and two weeks of celebration while Easter has six weeks of preparation and eight weeks of celebration.
Easter Sunday is the most important date in the Christian calendar. It is the Easter event – namely the Resurrection of Jesus Christ – that the Christian faith is based. St Paul reminds us: “If Christ has not been raised from the dead” then our faith, our believing is in vain, in other words a complete waste of time. Everything that the Christian believes in is based around the Easter story.
Neither Ash Wednesday or Lent are ends in themselves, they point to the big event of Easter.
Traditionally Lent has been associated with the negative – going off things. No drinking of alcohol, attempting to give up the cigarettes, reduced intake of food, doing without sweets and other things. In more recent times the focus has been on the positive and this presents a challenge to many. Many people find it easier to do what they are told rather than making a conscious decision for themselves.
When a person presents themselves for ashes on Wednesday they are declaring themselves as a follower of Jesus Christ and that they are entering into a period of preparation with an open heart and mind, repenting of their faults and seeking to get to know Jesus Christ better. The making of the cross with ashes is an ancient sign, which has its roots in Hebrew times. In the Book of Jonah and in the readings of the prophet Jeremiah we find reference to the people covering their heads with ashes as a sign of repentance.
The scripture readings for Ash Wednesday suggest three ways for the believer to prepare. These are Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving. Before speaking on any of the three ways Jesus gives a warning about practising piety in order to be seen. He is not against people letting the light of faith shine but he is against people using religion to direct attention on to themselves.
Prayer: The Jews were required to pray at set times of the day: at nine in the morning, at noontime, and at three in the afternoon. Wherever they found themselves that had to stop, stretch out their hands and pray. For Jesus prayer is not about a muscular demonstration but about the intention of the heart. In today’s busy world many find it hard to find time for prayer. Lent is an opportunity to make time.
Fasting: Fasting has a long history. We are told of how Jesus fasted for forty days and nights. Fasting in our times could be moderation and temperance. A little less of everything.
Almsgiving: Thinking of the less fortunate. It is easy to be selfish. Almsgiving is thinking about others. The church has the Trocaire Box during the Lenten season. The challenge is to give with a generous spirit and in proportion to our means.