Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday Reflection: What It Means to Be Human


The voice said to me: Human one, stand on your feet, and I’ll speak to you.
In the Common English Bible, the Lord addresses Ezekiel as “Human one.” Most English translations prefer the traditional “Son of man” instead of “Human one.” This is a more literal rendering of the Hebrew ben-adam. But the CEB rightly represents the sense of the Hebrew phrase. “Son of man” in this context means “human being” or “human one.” The Lord is not giving Ezekiel some special title, but addressing him in his humanness.
It’s providential that we are considering this topic on this day of the year. Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Christian season of Lent. On Ash Wednesday, Christians throughout the world have ashes “imposed” on their foreheads in a solemn service of worship. When this happens, the one who imposes the ashes quotes a version of Genesis 3:19, something like: “You are from dust, and to dust you will return.”
Ash Wednesday reminds us of our inherent humanness. We are from dust. We were created out of the dust of the ground. Yet Ash Wednesday also points to our sinfulness. We will die. We will return to the dust because of our sin.
The second implication of our dustiness is not good news. It’s the bad news of our condition as sinful human beings. Because of our sin, we will die. Yet, embedded in Ash Wednesday is a sign of the good news yet to come. Ashes are imposed on our foreheads in the sign of the cross. This ironic symbol, which once meant a horrible death, now points to life in Jesus Christ. The ashes of Ash Wednesday begin the season of Lent by presaging what comes after the end of the season: Good Friday, the day when the wages of our sin were paid by God through Christ.
The celebration of Ash Wednesday is not required in Scripture. Therefore, you are free to observe this day or not, according to how the Spirit leads you. But the truth of Ash Wednesday is for all people, not just all Christians, but all people. We are created from dust. Because of our sin, we will die, thus returning to dust. But God has done in Christ what we could not do for ourselves, taking the penalty of our sin and offering us the gift of new, eternal life.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION:
How do you experience your humanness? In what ways is it great to be human? In what ways is it not so great? What reminds you that you need a savior?
PRAYER: Gracious God, how I thank you for the gift of life. I thank you for the body you have given me. I thank you for my health, and for all the gifts that come with being a human being.
Yet, Lord, on this day, I’m reminded of the fact that I am not just a human being, but also a sinful one. I feel the impact of sin in my life each day, as I fail to do what’s right, as I choose to do what’s wrong, as my body ages, as the relationships in my life are painful, as my work is sometimes filled with thorns and thistles. Thus, I realize once more just how much I need a savior, just how much I need you.
As I enter the season of Lent, please draw me close to you. Renew my passion for you. Refresh my love for you.
All praise be to you, O God, my creator and my savior. Amen./


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From the Connections:
 
THE WORD:
The readings for this first day of the Lenten journey to Easter call us to turn.
In Hebrew, the word for repentance is to turn, like the turning of the earth to the sun at this time of year, like the turning of soil before spring planting.  The Lenten journey that begins on this Ash Wednesday calls us to repentance -- to turn away from those things that separate us from God and re-turn to the Lord.
In today’s Gospel, from his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs his listeners on the Christian attitude and disposition toward prayer, fasting and almsgiving.  Such acts are meaningful only if they are outward manifestations of the essential turningthat has taken place within our hearts.
Around 400 B.C., a terrible invasion of locusts ravaged Judah.  The prophet Joel saw this catastrophe as a symbol of the coming “Day of the Lord.”   The prophet summoned the people to repent, to turn to the Lord with fasting, prayer and works of charity.
In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul alternates between anger and compassion, between frustration and affection in defending his authority and mandate as an apostle in the face of attack by some members of the Corinthian community.  In today’s second reading, the apostle appeals for reconciliation among the members of the community, for a re-turn to the one faith shared by the entire Church.
HOMILY POINTS:
As the earth will “turn” toward the sun in the weeks ahead transforming the dark and cold of winter into the light and warmth of spring, so these ashes mark the beginning of a Lenten transformation of our souls and spirits.
The Spirit who called Jesus to the wilderness calls us, as well, to a forty-day “desert experience,” a time to peacefully and quietly renew and re-create our relationship with God, that he might become the center of our lives in every season.
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Nowadays the cost of a dinner and a movie keeps going up, and a vacation can be especially expensive, but if I really want to go somewhere I just take the change out of my pocket and lay it on the desk. It's like a time machine. Each coin has a year stamped on it, and just thinking about the year helps me travel back in my memory.  

1979 is the year my first son was born and the year I started in ministry. 1981 and 1983 are the years my daughter and second son were born. 1988 is the last time the Dodgers won the pennant. 1990 was when I moved to Indiana from Los Angeles. 1994 and 2004 were the years I turned forty and fifty. 2002 was when I moved to Pennsylvania. And it's getting harder to find, but any coin with 1954 is my birth year.  

I enjoy laying out the change in my pocket and just glancing at the dates. It's nice to carry these little reminders of important events, good and bad. But they're just one kind of reminder. We carry all sorts of reminders around. One of the most obvious is our date book, which we use to remind us of important events that are not in the past but in the future. We especially need a reminder for Ash Wednesday. It comes in the middle of nowhere. It's not like Christ­mas or Independence Day that fall on the same dates every year. Ash Wednesday is all over the map, from early February to some­time in March. What usually happens is that we notice someone with a smudge on their forehead and suddenly realize: was that today? Really, it's not very convenient. The least Ash Wednesday could do is fall on a Sunday.  

It is an interruption. And it's an unwelcome reminder of an unpleasant fact. Dust we are and to dust we shall return. The grass withers and the flower fades....  
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The Lord's Prayer: A Walking Prayer 

Every evening I walk three miles as part of my losing campaign against high blood pressure and my imperialistic waist line. I generally don't wear an iPod, because I prefer to take my exercise without anesthesia. (I enjoy the sounds of nature, and I want to be able to hear the cars honk before they run me over.) Sometimes I devote the time to prayer, and I have found that the Lord's Prayer makes a good outline. Here's how I do it: 

I address God as my Father by adoption through the grace of Jesus Christ and give thanks for His salvation. 

I pledge to keep His name holy in all my conduct. I remind Him of ways I have done this in the past, and ask Him forgiveness for all the ways I have failed to do so as well. 

I ask that His will be done, here on earth through me, as efficiently as it is done by His angels in heaven. I give examples of how I think I could do that; I ask His guidance and pledge my obedience. 

I ask for my material needs for the day, itemizing and discussing them. I give thanks for specific instances of His providence in the past.

I ask forgiveness, but only to the degree I am willing to forgive others. If I have a problem, I discuss it in detail. 

If I am facing any particular temptations, I discuss them and ask God to help me resist them. If I have recently survived any tough tests, I discuss them and thank God that He gave me the power to overcome them. 

I tell God about the evil things that frighten me, and ask Him to deliver me from them. I also give thanks for past rescues. 

You get the idea. When you pray like this, it's amazing how time flies! 

Kenneth W. Collins, Praying
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I'm Sorry, Father 

A Catholic priest working in an inner city was walking down an alley one evening on his way home when a young man came down the alley behind him and poked a knife against his back. "Give me your money," the young man said. 

The priest opened his jacket and reached into an inner pocket to remove his wallet, exposing his clerical collar. "Oh, I'm sorry, Father," said the young man, "I didn't see your collar. I don't want YOUR money." 

Trembling from the scare, the priest removed a cigar from his shirt pocket and offered it to the young man. "Here," he said. "Have a cigar." 

"Oh, no, I can't do that," the young man replied, "I gave them up for Lent." 
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Let Us Play 

My dear friends, let us play. Yes, you heard me correctly. Now is a time for play. In fact, today the church begins that time of the year when we do our most serious playing.

And playing is a serious business, you know. Ask any teacher of children. Better still, watch children at play. No wonder they are tired at the end of the day. They work hard at playing. They take it seriously.

Play is the child's laboratory for learning about life. Children who have never played at being grown-up tend to be handicapped in some way when they have to confront the actual experience. Boys who have never been allowed to play with dolls can hardly be expected to hold their own infants with ease and loving confidence. It has to be a later learning if it is ever learned at all. Play may be a more valuable tool for learning than all the educational resources manufactured by the professionals.

That is why, on this Ash Wednesday, the church summons us to a season of play. Our Lord has told us, if we are to enter the kingdom of heaven, we must become as little children. And one of childhood's most important occupations is play.

Am I wrong in my impression, however, that most of us do not come to church to play, that play is the furthest thing from our minds? Play seems foreign to our understanding of religion, and if it is to be found in church at all, it is best restricted to the nursery and the carefully supervised activities of the youth groups. H.L. Mencken defined a puritan as a person with the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, might be happy. I know the puritan still comes to church with me from time to time. What about you? 

Kendall K. McCabe and Michael L. Sherer
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Recharging Your Batteries 

An Italian newspaper recently carried a story about a young couple in Milan who seemed particularly devoted in their worship. The priest at a cathedral there reported that the pair spent an hour or more on a regular basis sitting before a statue of the Virgin Mary. Naturally, he assumed they were praying.

Turns out, this young couple was recharging their cell phone. They had noticed a stray electric cable sticking out of the wall behind the statue of the Virgin Mary. Whenever their phone's power supply dwindled, the young couple came to the church and re-charged it from the cable behind the Virgin Mary. The priest states that the young couple is welcome to use his church for this purpose.

We talk about coming to church to "re-charge our batteries," but this is ridiculous. What looked to the unobservant eye like an act of piety was actually a self-serving ploy to save money. This young couple was using the church for their own needs. And we're shocked, shocked, I tell you--until we realize that we may be guilty of the same mistake.
 

King Duncan 
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A Walking Children's Sermon
 

The Rev. Timothy J. Kennedy tells a wonderful true story that is perfect for Ash Wednesday. It was told to him by a colleague, Pastor Chris Mietlowski. It concerned a baptism that Mietlowski once performed on an infant named Eric. Mietlowski took Eric in his arms and traced the cross of Christ on Eric's forehead using a special anointing oil. 

Following worship, Eric's family celebrated with a big backyard party. Family and friends ate burgers and chips and played volleyball under a summer sun. Eric, being only six months old, was left to nap in his backyard stroller. When Mom got him up, whoops. Basted on Eric's forehead was the image of the cross. Mom had forgotten to wash Eric's face following his baptism, and the oil that the pastor had traced onto his forehead acted the opposite of a sun screen. The Cross of Christ was imprinted on Eric's forehead. "For several weeks until it completely disappeared," says Rev. Kennedy, "that cross was a wonderful reminder as to the meaning of Baptism and a reminder that the Cross of Jesus was 'written' upon Eric's forehead." 

And what a powerful witness it was, says Rev. Kennedy. "Eric's Mom and Dad had to explain the cross to the pediatrician, to the neighbors, to the stranger in the grocery store. For a few weeks, Eric was nothing less than a [living] children's sermon. It was only a bit of a sunburn to be sure, but [it was] the best basting a child can have to be marked with the cross of Christ! And why not? That cross is to be the foundation of that child's life."

 If I read the little book of Joel right, God's desire is not that we wear a cross on our forehead, but that it be basted on our hearts. "Rend your heart and not your garments," says Joel 2:23. That's much harder to do, isn't it? It's much easier to rend your clothes than to rend your heart. It's much easier to wear a cross around your neck than it is to bear it daily in everything you do.  

Timothy J. Kennedy
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"Some Christians jump all over the room;
Others are as solemn and quiet as a tomb.
Some lift their hands high in the air,
But others wouldn't, even on a dare.
Christians are different in style and in song;
But if they are humble, to Christ they belong."


Traditional
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Pancake Day  

Every once in a while a whimsical story makes the news. Some years ago, the Associated Press carried a story about a woman in Olney, England, named Dawn Gallyot who defied snow and a biting wind to beat seven other women to the finish line in the annual Shrove Tuesday pancake race. In her first race, the 38-year-old schoolteacher made the 415-yard dash from a pub in the market square to the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul with a pancake and a frying pan in her hand in 73 seconds. That was 9.5 seconds slower than the previous year's pace. Each woman must flip a pancake in the frying pan at the start and at the finish of the race. The record is 58 seconds. Mrs. Gallyot reportedly wore a traditional headscarf and apron, but opted for modern running shoes. 

Shrove Tuesday, known in England as Pancake Day, is traditionally the last day for merrymaking before the start of Lent. Pancakes are thought to be a good way to get in the eggs and fat that faithful church people were supposed to give up for Lent. Legend has it that the Olney race started in 1445 when a housewife, dashing to get to church on time, arrived at the service clutching in her hand a frying pan with a pancake still in it.

The pancake race is but one of many traditions that have grown up around the season of Lent. New Orleans' Mardi Gras is another - one last blowout before a season of denial...
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 PRAYERS:

My dearest Lord, take my small offering of self-denial this Lent, as a sign of my great longing for you. I hunger for your presence in my life, and I thirst for your love. I hunger for justice for those who are wronged and oppressed, and I thirst for your peace. I hunger for a glimpse of your glory, and I thirst for your stillness in my heart. God of giving, God of longing, God of pain, I hunger for you.

Ashes 

Dust and ashes touch our face,
Mark our failure and our falling.
Holy Spirit, come,
Walk with us tomorrow,
Take us as disciples,
Washed and wakened by your calling.
Take us by the hand and lead us,
Lead us through the desert sands.
Bring us living water.
Holy Spirit, come. 

PRAYER OVER THE ASHES

Life-giving God, we thank you for creating us out of the dust of the earth, and breathing your life into us.

May these ashes be to us a sign that life is more than our physical bodies, and that our hope of eternal life depends, not on our merits, but on your mercy alone, to which we turn now, in sorrow for our sins, and with the trust of children. Amen
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Fr. David Albright:

Public and private devotion

 Purpose: As we begin the season of Lent, the Scriptures being proclaimed reveal God’s expectation of both public penance and private mortification, seemingly contradictory commands.  It is necessary for us to develop a hidden prayer life, as well as to observe what the Church asks of us, together with the faith community.

The holy season of Lent is the very acceptable time to pause for spiritual inventory and renewal.  Lent is a grand retreat for the whole Church.  We step back from the ordinary to spend a little time amid somber d├ęcor and music, abandoning the Alleluia and the Gloria, as if going out into the desert, like the first monastic communities, to seek a deeper experience of the Lord in silence and emptiness.  This is the moment given to us by the Church each year to examine our consciences and repent of all our sins, so we can experience the happiness of the one whose offense is forgiven (Psalm 32).  These are the sacred forty days when we commit ourselves to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.  In so doing, we discipline ourselves to think less of the self and its cravings, and more of the needs of the poor.  Prayer deepens the relationship with God begun in Baptism, and renewed each year at the Easter Mass.  By our Lenten observance, we are prepared to accept, once again, the baptismal commission to reject sin and believe in God.  We are made ready to honor and serve him all the more.

We are ambassadors for Christ, and effective ambassadors need to know the mind of the one they represent.  Putting on the mind of Christ means deepening our conversation with the Lord in prayer, in particular prayerful contemplation of the Word of God, disciplining our wills, and looking outward to serve the poor in our midst.  Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are the traditional Lenten observances, taken from today’s Gospel, which help to make us more like Christ whom we serve.

In the reading today from the prophet Joel, the Lord demands a public observance of penance: “blow the trumpet…proclaim a fast, call an assembly; Gather the people, notify the congregation; Assemble he elders…”  In contrast are the words of Christ: “do not blow a trumpet before you…do not be like the hypocrites who love to stand and pray in synagogues and on street corners…do not look gloomy like the hypocrites…that they may appear to others to be fasting.”  This is one of those instances when we perceive a contradiction between the Old and New Testament readings.  Should we proclaim a public fast, or should we quietly go about our spiritual discipline?

Through the valuable “both/and” lens that Catholicism wisely applies to many areas of spirituality, we appreciate the significance of both public and private devotion.  The Church calls us to a fast and summons the congregation to observe Lent as a worldwide faith community.  As Catholics, we have an obligation to follow the norms of spiritual discipline established by the Church.  In fact, it is one of the Precepts of the Church, one of the basic “house rules” of our family of faith, that we abide by the laws of fast and abstinence during Lent.  Another Precept of the Church is to financially support the work of the Church, including her charity to the poor.  This includes generous support of the parish, diocesan, and national collections devoted to the work of serving the needy and marginalized.  It is our obligation as disciples of Christ to support the work of the worldwide Church, as she is the face of Christ to those most in need.  Public prayer is obviously essential to our Catholic life, especially the Mass.  Without the Eucharist, we would be detached from Christ, and deprived of spiritual nourishment.  Life without the Eucharist is like being a fish on dry land!  Attending Sunday and Holy Day Mass is a third Precept of the Church.  Even more than that, Jesus said we should pray: “Give us this day our daily bread.”  We have the opportunity every day to receive Jesus in Holy Communion, and this season of Lent is a great time to add to our spiritual routine, and attend Mass more than on Sunday.  The blessings we receive from Holy Mass are infinite and life-giving!

At the same time, the Lord reminds us that spiritual things are never to be done out of a prideful desire to be seen as “holy.”  If we are fasting, we cannot justify complaining that we’re hungry.  We need to quietly endure the little moments of suffering that Lenten discipline brings for the sake of Christ and the poor. Otherwise, the sacrifice is without merit.  It is good to show an example of prayer to others, but the real reason to pray is to please God, never to win the esteem of others.  When we give to the poor, it is for more than a tax write-off, or to be seen by our friends as generous.  Quietly going about the performing of our duties and penances in order to honor the Lord, and build up the lives of the less fortunate, is a sacrifice holy and pleasing in the sight of God.

May this holy season draw us closer to the heart of Christ through our obedience to the Church and our humble prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.  Thus may we come to the joy of Easter with renewed hearts, and lively devotion to him who loves us beyond measure.
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Connections:

 THE WORD:

The readings for this first day of the Lenten journey to Easter call us to turn.

In Hebrew, the word for repentance is to turn, like the turning of the earth to the sun at this time of year, like the turning of soil before spring planting.  The Lenten journey that begins on this Ash Wednesday calls us to repentance -- to turn away from those things that separate us from God and re-turn to the Lord.

In today’s Gospel, from his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs his listeners on the Christian attitude and disposition toward prayer, fasting and almsgiving.  Such acts are meaningful only if they are outward manifestations of the essential turningthat has taken place within our hearts.

Around 400 B.C., a terrible invasion of locusts ravaged Judah.  The prophet Joel saw this catastrophe as a symbol of the coming “Day of the Lord.”   The prophet summoned the people to repent, to turn to the Lord with fasting, prayer and works of charity.

In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul alternates between anger and compassion, between frustration and affection in defending his authority and mandate as an apostle in the face of attack by some members of the Corinthian community.  In today’s second reading, the apostle appeals for reconciliation among the members of the community, for a re-turn to the one faith shared by the entire Church.

HOMILY POINTS:

As the earth will “turn” toward the sun in the weeks ahead transforming the dark and cold of winter into the light and warmth of spring, so these ashes mark the beginning of a Lenten transformation of our souls and spirits.

The Spirit who called Jesus to the wilderness calls us, as well, to a forty-day “desert experience,” a time to peacefully and quietly renew and re-create our relationship with God, that he might become the center of our lives in every season.
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by Fr. Tommy Lane

The word “Lent” comes from an old English word which means “springtime” so it reminds us of spring cleaning and the new life in nature during spring. This season of Lent is a time of special grace for us in which we want to do some spring cleaning in our lives and enjoy new life as a result. Therefore we have come here today to acknowledge that we are sinners. We want to clean up our lives during Lent. We want to leave sin behind and grow closer to the Lord. We want a change of heart this Lent.
The words of the Lord through the prophet Joel in our first reading are words that have special significance for us today as we begin this season of Lent and are words that we can easily see the Lord speaking to us personally,
“Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the Lord, your God.
For gracious and merciful is he,
slow to anger, rich in kindness,
and relenting in punishment.”
(Joel 2:12-13)
The words of Paul in our second reading to the Corinthians are also very relevant for us as we begin this season of Lent,
We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him. (2 Cor 5:20-21)
In the Scriptures when people left sin behind and turned over a new leaf they used ashes to symbolize their repentance. Job said, “I disown what I have said, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:6) Daniel “turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes.” (Dan 9:3) Jesus said, “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would long ago have repented, sitting in sackcloth and ashes.” (Matt 11:21; Luke 10:13). Therefore in a spirit of repentance we will take take ashes on our foreheads.
Sometimes people ask, “What are you doing for Lent?” There is one thing to give up during Lent – sin. This season of Lent is a preparation for renewing our baptismal promises during the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night. Paul says, when writing to the Romans (6:3-6), that when we were baptized we died to our old way of life to live a new way of life i.e. when we were baptized we died to our old sinful ways, we left sin behind. Therefore Paul says that when we were baptized we went into the tomb with Jesus and rose out of the tomb again with Jesus to a new life. The season of Lent is to give us time once again to die to our old sinful ways and rise out of the tomb with Jesus to a new way of life so that by the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night when we renew our baptismal vows we will also have renewed our lives. That is why the First Preface of Lent says,
Each year you give us this joyful season
when we prepare to celebrate the paschal mystery
with mind and heart renewed.
In our second reading Paul wrote to the Corinthians not to receive the grace of God in vain (2 Cor 6:1). During Lent this year let us too not receive the grace of God in vain.
To show that we are serious about overcoming sin we do penance. Our penance during Lent as well as being a small attempt at reparation for our sins is a symbol of the change of heart we want to achieve. In the Gospel today (Matt 6:1-6, 16-18) Jesus spoke about prayer, fasting and giving alms. Since the early centuries these are three practices the Church has encouraged us to undertake during Lent as a form of penance: praying more, fasting and giving alms to the poor.
  • We fast today and on Good Friday and abstain from meat on the Fridays of Lent. In a spirit of repentance we have always fasted from one of our favorite foods for the entire season of Lent e.g. candy. It is a way of showing that we love the Lord more than food and that we love the Lord more than sin.
  • There are many ways of giving alms. In helping other people we also love the Lord.
  • I hope Lent may also be for you a time of growing closer to the Lord by spending more time in prayer. This would also be a good time to renew praying the Rosary daily if you have been neglectful. Reading the Bible and reading spiritual books are also a great help.
I wish you a holy season of Lent, a joyful season of Lent, a time in which you grow closer to the Lord and leave sin behind. The Lord comes to us with a different grace in each season. May the grace God gives us during this season of Lent not be in vain. I conclude with the opening prayer of Mass,
Lord,
protect us in our struggle against evil.
As we begin the discipline of Lent,
make this season holy by our self-denial.
(Opening Prayer of Mass on Ash Wednesday)