Lent 2018 begins
Let's just walk right over the S. Valentine's day question. If you are Catholic and you understand the importance of the liturgical observance of Ash Wednesday, losing the secular observance of S. Valentine's day will not bother you at all. Now, what is this liturgical observance and why does it draw us in in such numbers every year? It has to do with the blessing and distribution of ashes, a symbol of our acknowledgement of our sinfulness before the holiness of God. So, we take up an ancient practice of the Hebrews, part of our inheritance from that people: using ashes as a symbol of grief and mourning. We can see this in the first reading at Mass for Ash Wednesday: the prophet Joel speaks of an inner rending of garments, an inner sprinkling of ashes - the symbolic liturgical observance must be accompanied sacramentally by an inner movement of the soul. In the Old Testament, ashes were placed upon the head by a person who had put on sack-cloth in the place of his regular garment. When this person was royalty or a high noble, as some very distinguished figures in the Old Testament were, then the effect was greater. Ash Wednesday is therefore about humility and the priest says to us, "Remember, man, that you are dust, and to dust you will return."
And so all our great pretences, our pride and greed, our little acts of selfishness fall into perspective. S. Paul tells us in the second reading at Mass that as ambassadors of Christ, it is important that we be reconciled with God. What good are our works, in the end - the great works of the Church in all ages - what good are they unless our hearts be at one with God? With the coming of Christ and the ready availability of salvation to those who wish it and have prepared themselves for it, there is no reason to not be constantly reconciled to God. After Christ, today, everyday is the favourable time, the day of Salvation. Christians are always called to internal conversion, constantly throughout our lives. It is important, because we are constantly pulled away from the path Christ has prepared for us. Conversion and reconciliation draws us back, they are signs of the grace of God working within us. Because the movement is internal, Christ asks us in the Gospel to keep our acts of penitence private, so that we draw merit from them and they remain internal and not superficial and hypocritical. Such are the readings at Mass for Ash Wednesday - renew the spirit of conversion and penitence within you, o Christian soul, and so strengthen your relationship with the God who forgives and demands more of you everyday, transforming you into the likeness of his beloved Son.