Called to Ongoing Conversion: Death,Lent and Ashes
Embracing our Lenten ashes means we recognize the need for deeper conversion
The truth is that you will die within the next hundred years, and reminding you of this truth is one of the primary purposes behind Ash Wednesday. Embracing our Lenten ashes means we recognize the need for deeper conversion. Conversion always involves "giving something up" in some form, but the goal is not to postpone sin for the duration of Lent, but to root it out of our lives forever. Conversion means completely leaving behind old ways of living, perceiving, and behaving in order to embrace the beauty and crown of new life in Christ.
We are food for worms, and yet our culture, our modernist worldview, pretends that nature can somehow be betrayed. We worship the appearance of youth while we are alive, and when those around us (gasp!) give in to inevitability, we hide the reality of their rot, decay and morbidity behind funeral home doors and caskets, embalming fluid and makeup, and words like "passing."
The truth is that you will die within the next hundred years, and reminding you of this truth is one of the primary purposes behind Ash Wednesday. The Church, in her 2000 years of Christian wisdom, knows that the discipline of ritual is an aid to ongoing conversion, and that spontaneity is not nearly as important as steadfastness. So every year, 40 days before the ultimate Sacrifice that the Church remembers at Easter, we are offered the preparatory discipline of Lent.
In a way, it's the Church's means of reminding herself not to get too big for her breeches - that we are all merely dust and ashes. Ash Wednesday, then, is a day for remembering and contemplating our mortality. It brings to the forefront of our minds the relationship that connects us to our last end - Jesus - and the reality that we are radically and solely dependent on Him to overcome our inevitable fate: sin, and consequently death.
The head, as the Scriptural seat of pride, receives the ashen cross on Ash Wednesday as the priest or deacon says, "Remember, oh man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shall return." We remember our createdness with a strange thrill of respect, say nothing, and simply return to our pews.
Wearing the ashes on our foreheads throughout the course of the day's activities is a badge of Catholicism, a discipline and public witness to those things modern society decries: the reality of spiritual authority through the Church, death, penance for sin, and the hope of resurrection in Our Lord, Jesus Christ. And yet there is a somewhat contradictory truth present, so that Lent is a paradoxical illustration of our hope of happiness and bliss in death.
The Paradox of Life
The custom of ashes hearkens to the sacrificial burnt offerings of Old Testament Judaism, the sweet root of Catholicism; they were the only Old Testament offerings that were wholly consumed on the altar when accepted by God. As the precedent to the New Testament, we study the Old Testament to more completely understand the worship that was pleasing to God, how Jesus fulfilled those requirements, and how the Church follows Him in pleasing God with our own worship.
Through the Old Testament sacrifices we learn that sacrificial worship pleases God. It must be through the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world, of the best we own and are, it must be freely made, continual, and having offered a thing to be wholly consumed, we are left with a pile of ashes. Ashes, however, had their own profound place in the Scriptures.
They were always used in ancient times to denote human mourning and weakness. In Genesis 18:27 the lack of holiness in Sodom was paramount to the city's worthlessness. With God, Abraham mourned the lack of purity and goodness there with sackcloth and ashes.
In 2 Samuel 13:14-19, Tamar's grief over her incestuous rape was communicated through the ashes she threw on her head. Exodus 9:10 shows that God's judgment is known through the presence of ashes. National humiliation caused the mourning in 1 Maccabees 3:44-53, while suffering, disease and affliction were the preceding causes in Job 2:1-8.
Ashes are especially indicative of repentance in the Scriptures in several passages (Jonah 3:1-10; Job 42:2-6; Mal. 4:3; Matt. 11:21; 2 Pet. 2:6), so that together with the original connotations of the Old Testament sacrificial offerings, ashes came to predominantly indicate sorrowful contrition in the Scriptures.
In the Old Testament, suffering of all sorts may have been characterized by ashes, but as early as the prophets a new picture began to emerge. In Isaiah's prophecies of the New Testament Messiah, there was born a new application for those dusty ashes, previously indicative of afflicted, brokenhearted captives who found themselves in prison, bound and mourning:
"The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion - to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, ...
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'So it is written that the Christ would suffer and on the third day rise from the dead' - Luke 24:46
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Season of Lent. It is a season of penance, reflection, and fasting which prepares us for Christ's Resurrection on Easter Sunday, through which we attain redemption. continue reading
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On Palm Sunday, we celebrate the first joy of the season, as we celebrate Our Lord's triumphant entrance into Jerusalem where he was welcomed by crowds worshiping him and laying down palm leaves before him. It also marks the beginning of Holy Week... continue reading
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Easter is the principal feast of the ecclesiastical year. Leo I (Sermo xlvii in Exodum) calls it the greatest feast (festum festorum), and says that Christmas is celebrated only in preparation for Easter. It is the centre of the greater part of the ecclesiastical year ... continue reading
For most people the easiest practice to consistently fulfill will be the traditional one, to abstain from meat on all Fridays of the year. During Lent abstinence from meat on Fridays is obligatory in the United States as elsewhere. Christ Himself said that His disciples would fast once He had departed (Lk. 5:35). continue reading
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Stations of the Cross refers to the depiction of the final hours (or Passion) of Jesus, and the devotion commemorating the Passion. First Station: Jesus is condemned to death... pray the stations now
What did you give up for Lent?
From the humorous to the bizarre, people have had interesting Lenten experiences. Tell us about what you are going to give up for this Lenten Year.
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F. K. Bartels - Catholic Online, 4/6/2013
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Deacon Keith Fournier - Catholic Online, 4/1/2013
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Fr. Randy Sly - Catholic Online, 3/31/2013
To make sure that all mankind knows that it is not over but actually just beginning, God has an Easter bombshell. While we may have been able to anticipate the wondrous joy of a day of resurrection, ...Continue Reading
Pope Francis - Catholic Online, 3/31/2013
Our daily problems and worries can wrap us up in ourselves, in sadness and bitterness... and that is where death is. That is not the place to look for the One who is alive! Let the risen Jesus enter ...Continue Reading
On Good Friday, the entire Church fixes her gaze on the Cross at Calvary. Each member of the Church tries to understand at what cost Christ has won our redemption.
In the symbol of the Cross we can see the magnitude of the human tragedy, the ravages of original sin, and the infinite love of God. Learn More
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Season of Lent. It is a season of penance, reflection, and fasting which prepares us for Christ's Resurrection on Easter Sunday, through which we attain redemption.
The ashes are made from the blessed palms used in the Palm Sunday celebration of the previous year. The ashes are christened with Holy Water and are scented by exposure to incense. Learn More
Stations of the Cross refers to the depiction of the final hours (or Passion) of Jesus, and the devotion commemorating the Passion.
ACT OF CONTRITION. O my God, my Redeemer, behold me here at Thy feet. From the bottom of my heart... Pray the Stations
'Christ Himself said that His disciples would fast once He had departed' Lk. 5:35
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Fasting. The law of fasting requires a Catholic from the 18th Birthday (Canon 97) to the 59th Birthday (i.e. the beginning of the 60th year, a year which will be completed on the 60th birthday) to reduce the amount of food eaten from normal. The Church defines this as one meal a day, and two smaller meals which if added together would not exceed the main meal.
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