Besides Christmas and Easter, parishes usually experience the biggest crowds on Ash Wednesday. People are inherently sacramental—we are made to physically experience life, including the spiritual realm—so that is certainly part of the filled pews. But there is an even deeper reality to Ash Wednesday that I want to bring to your attention.
When we receive ashes we are participating in an ancient practice that was first associated with entry into the Order of Penitents. It is this penitential aspect that I want to highlight as we begin Lent, especially because it is so frequently misunderstood.
The Order of Penitents came into existence in the early Church for those who had committed a serious sin after their baptism. The penitent would confess their sin, receive a penance from the bishop or his delegate and then be enrolled in the order. When they entered, penitents would receive ashes on their head, be given a prominent location to occupy in the church, and put on clothes that marked their state of penance. The penances could last a few years so that a true, deep conversion of the heart could occur.
At the beginning of the 11th century, the Anglo-Saxon homilist Abbot Aelfric offers one of the first implicit references of the use of ashes by all believers, not just official penitents.
It is written “in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins covered themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.”
We can all benefit from focusing on Ash Wednesday as a time to undergo deeper conversion through penance so that we are able to welcome the Risen Lord at Easter with fuller joy.
When we receive ashes, we are engaging in a form of penance that visibly humbles us. We acknowledge that we are sinners, unfaithful to the Lord and the commandments he has given us. We hear the words, “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel,” or “Remember, you are dust and to dust you will return,” which remind us of our mortality and our need for conversion.
But in my experience most people don’t know much about the practice of penance, except in connection with confession.
The very first thing I want to point out is that we are not Pelagians. We do not believe that we earn our salvation by doing a sufficient amount of good deeds. That is impossible, since every sin we commit is an offense against God, who is infinitely good, and therefore the degree of our offense is beyond our own finite means of restitution. That is why it was necessary for Jesus to reconcile us with the Father. We cannot do it on our own. Jesus alone is the savior of the world.
So why do acts of penance? The true aim of any act of penance is to move our heart toward conversion, to turn away our heart from sin and embrace the love God the Father offers us in Jesus Christ.
Citing Matthew’s Gospel (6:1-6, 16-18), the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes in paragraph 1430 that without conversion “penances remain sterile and false; however, interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures and works of penance.”
Most Catholics are familiar with the concept of giving up something for Lent, but what is not well understood is that these sacrifices, these acts of penance, have value because they teach virtue, not because the things sacrificed are bad.
Giving up sweets, coffee, alcohol or listening to music is good because it helps us grow in our ability to turn away from something we desire. Fasting is also important because it helps us focus the eyes of our heart on Jesus, just as he focused the eyes of his heart on the Father in the 40 days he spent fasting. Our heart, made for God, longs for deeper intimacy with the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Fasting strengthens our ability to turn toward the good when we are faced with a temptation to sin.
This Ash Wednesday, as we begin the 40 days of Lent, I encourage you to think about acts of penance that you can do to draw closer to Christ and the Trinity and turn away from any sins that have a foothold in your life.
Unfortunately, the Latin Church no longer requires 40 days of fasting as she did for centuries. Yet, it is a practice that we can take up on our own, following the practices of the Eastern Churches which still preserve the fast.
Some possible penances and good works you can do this Lent are taking part in spiritual exercises; prayerfully reading one of the Gospels during Lent or the section of the Catechism on the sacrament of reconciliation; spending time in eucharistic adoration each week; participating in penitential liturgies such as the Stations of the Cross and penance services; going on pilgrimage; or acts of self-denial such as fasting, almsgiving and works of charity like serving the poor or giving witness to Christ.
May God bless you with a fruitful and virtuous Lent so that you may draw closer to Christ and joyfully welcome the Risen Lord at Easter!