Ash Wednesday

February 14, 2018

Archbishop B. O’Brien


The symbol that dominates our celebration today is, of course, the distribution of ashes.  Ashes, as we know, are a by-product when something is burned.  They are the leftovers after fire passes over or through something.  After the heat and light are gone, ashes are what remain.  But ashes are not only what is left; for Christians, they represent a powerful symbol which is central to our liturgy today as we begin the season of Lent.


The Book of Genesis paints a picture of the first human being formed out of the dust of the earth into which God breathed life.  This a powerful image that reminds us that, without the breath or Spirit of God moving in us, we are like ashes – lifeless, inert.  Ashes are a reminder of who we are and to what we would return without Christ’s victory over sin and death.


Right now, as we watch the Olympic games on television, we are seeing great performances by the athletes, and we marvel at their skill and grace.  But behind their success, whether it’s a skater or a skier or whatever, there are years of training and practice.  In the Gospel today, we see that Jesus presents his own training program for us.  It really is very simple and involves just three things: give something to others, pray, and fast.  But then he adds something else:  he says that you have to perform these exercises in a certain way or you won’t get the benefit of them.  You have to do them sincerely, not to impress other people.  When you do them sincerely, they will help to make you into a better follower of Jesus, just like the training program of an athlete makes him or her a stronger contender.


There is nothing to suggest that this is a self-help approach to salvation.  We don’t save ourselves by these works.  What prayer, fasting, and almsgiving do is to prepare us – open us up – to receive all that God wants to give us: his forgiveness, his peace, and maybe even a challenge or two.


Lent is not only about what we do; first and foremost, it is about what God wants to do for us.  It is time of year when Christ, through the means of the Church, reconciles, pardons, anoints, and instructs those who are preparing for Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist at Easter.


The opening prayer of today’s liturgy asks for the grace we need to live these special days of Lent that lie ahead.  May we pray during today’s liturgy that our reception of the ashes today will encourage us to experience the Lenten period as a special time of God’s grace responding to the particular needs that each of us has.