The Season of Grace is upon us! Are we ready? Fat Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday leads us now into the celebration of Ash Wednesday. It has been my experience that each year when Ash Wednesday comes around, our churches are packed. The number of people coming to receive ashes is quite extraordinary. Why is this? Why is it important for you to receive ashes on Ash Wednesday? What draws you to this spiritual exercise?
For me, this is the beginning of a beautiful time of the liturgical year. It is not just a penitential season, but a season of grace. More on that in moment.
The history and beginnings of Lent aren’t quite clear. The Sacred Scriptures do not mention Ash Wednesday or the custom of Lent specifically. However, the practice of repentance and mourning in ashes is found in 2 Samuel 13:19; Esther 4:1; Job 2:8; Daniel 9:3; and Matthew 11:21.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus saw towns full of people reject salvation even though they had seen so many of his miracles there. He denounced them for not repenting: “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 in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you.”
So in some sense, this is what takes place on Ash Wednesday and during the season of Lent. We repent in spiritual sackcloth and receive ashes.
Receiving ashes also takes us back to the Book of Genesis. Ashes are a symbol of death in the Bible. God formed humans out of dust: “…then the LORD God formed the man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”
When we have the ashes traced on our forehead these words are often used. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We may also hear the words, “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” Both of these orient us to the season of Lent.
Lent has likely been observed since apostolic times, though the practice was not formalized until the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. Christian scholars believe that Lent became more regularized after the legalization of Christianity in 313 A.D.
St. Irenaeus, Pope St. Victor I, and St. Athanasius all seem to have written about Lent during their ministries. Most scholars agree that “by the end of the fourth century, this 40-day period of Easter preparation known as Lent had existed, and that prayer and fasting constituted its spiritual exercises.
Historically, these 40 days of Lent were meant to be a time of preparation for catechumens coming into the Catholic faith. These are the final days of preparation for the folks in the RCIA process.
But what about us who are not preparing to enter into the Catholic faith? What about us? We, too, should see this time as a 40 day retreat, answering the call to conversion in our own lives – a time of repentance. The Prophet Joel sets the tone for us: “Even now, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning: REND your hearts, not your garments, for gracious and merciful is he.”
This is a season for growing in holiness. How many of us want to grow in holiness? An important question! If this is our desire then it is important to begin the season of Lent asking the Lord to lead us to holiness of life.
“Lord Jesus, lead us to holiness. It is you, you alone who can convert our hearts so that we become like you. Convert our hearts to be like yours, Lord Jesus.” I invite you to pray this every day with expectant faith and trust, and who knows where the Lord will lead you.
Let us look at Lent as a season of Grace. Like those coming into the Church at Easter, we too, are called to be converts…..looking at our own lives and our own sinfulness in the light of grace, a time for turning away from our thirsts for the things of this world to what really matters in life.
There is a line from Good Friday…one that was so very instrumental in Mother Teresa’s life and should be for own journey. As Jesus was hanging on the cross, he said….… “I thirst.” These two words really should be the framework for these next six weeks for all of us. Mediate on these two words! “I thirst.”
Jesus’ “thirst” was far more than a thirst for water. It was a thirst for love….our love…..our hearts….our lives……and yes, even our sins.
God, not only thirsts for us, but he thirsts for our sins. Imagine that! Pray with this!
In the Season of Grace, will we give them to him so that HIS thirst will be satisfied?
I wish you all a blessed Lenten Season.