Each year as Lent approaches, I recall my first Ash Wednesday as a missionary in Guayaquil, Ecuador. When I arrived at the remote chapel along the Bulabula River that Wednesday in February, the heavy rains had stopped and there was mud everywhere. Mosquitos and all the rest were in abundance and I’m thinking “I gotta get out of here before dark comes or I’m in trouble!”
As I climbed down from the 4×4 wagon, the crowds of people plodding through the puddles were larger than any I had seen in my brief time in Ecuador. The Lenten season was about to begin. The ancient ritual of being marked on the forehead with blessed ashes, deeply popular everywhere, seems especially so among the Ecuadorian people.
Frankly, to this day I do not think I fully understand the popularity – almost a frenzied focus on this ritual! People come by the thousands, stand in line eagerly, and eventually reach the priest where the damp ashes are smudged on their foreheads with the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”. One would not think that reminder would be so popular!
In our own world here in Charlestown, the ritual of Ash Wednesday is also religiously observed. All over the city and, in fact, the world, women, men and children will step forward to be marked with blessed ashes. For many, life is so busy and hectic. People live with so much stress and work so hard and long. The simplicity of the Lenten ashes is, perhaps, considered a welcomed invitation to pause, reflect, and refocus on what really matters.
In the forty days ahead, the call is to spend more time in prayer, to exercise acts of fasting in some form, and to practice acts of generosity. All three are the pillars of the Lenten journey and offer us opportunities to gain deeper insight into our own lives and our relationship with God.
In the fast-paced, tension filled world in which we live, making time for prayer is not easy. Yet many Christians pray in ways both formal and informal. We pray for our loved ones and we pray for those in need. We pray for peace and we pray for success in our lives. We also pray in gratitude to the God who created us and who sustains us. Prayer brings us closer to God and to one another. At its root, prayer is exercising our faith and our hope in the God who loves us unconditionally.
Fasting may seem odd, especially in our society when so many have so much – unless we’re fasting for health reasons. Yet fasting – choosing to deny oneself something (actually anything) – sharpens our understanding of our weaknesses and our dependence on so much that is unnecessary. Fasting can free us to see and act more clearly and with greater purity.
Confronting our selfishness by acts of generosity also is freeing. This freedom has one primary objective: to help us recognize our dependence on God above all else, and to acknowledge that all that we have is a gift from God. And in gratitude for what we have been given, we freely share with those who are in need, and in doing so, we find that we receive much more than we give.
While this marking with blessed ashes might appear morose and gloomy, its purpose is just the opposite! It truly is a wake-up-call to what matters most in this sweet journey called life. A journey that is surprisingly short and, at times, filled with disappointments and fear. Lent points us toward the enduring wisdom of our God, Who is Love, and aids us to choose wisely in the midst of the shallow, transient gods of our times.
Ash Wednesday, February 26, begins our Lenten journey. Each of us is invited to step forward and receive the simple mark of blessed ashes reminding us of what truly matters most in life and guiding us toward our destiny. In the challenges of these times, this is a gift – a lifeline of Hope and Love.
February 23 ~ Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
In today’s Gospel, Jesus makes clear how we are to live: turn the other cheek, hand over your cloak as well as your tunic, asked to walk a mile, walk two.
All of this builds up to the hardest of all:
LOVE YOUR ENEMIES and PRAY FOR THOSE WHO PERSECUTE YOU. But don’t despair! We find hope in St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “… you are the temple of God, … the Spirit of God dwells in you..”
We – you – can do anything if you are open to the power of God,
the love of Jesus, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.