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Ash Wednesday Calls us to Turn Away from Sin and Be Faithful to the Gospel
By Deacon Keith Fournier
February 22nd, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)
Who needs Lent? We do. If we enter into Lent with our entire person, it can draw us into a deeper embrace of the power of the Resurrection, beginning right now.Liturgy is the "work" (that is what the word means) of the faithful. Lent is a powerful liturgical season. However, to borrow an adage from the recovery movement, it "only works if you work it". With its practices of piety, asceticism and extended prayer and worship, it challenges us to "turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel".
CHESAPEAKE (Catholic Online) - On Ash Wednesday, I have the privilege as an ordinary minister alongside of the Priest, to administer the ashes to the faithful who come forward to identify themselves as pilgrims on the 40 day journey of repentance and conversion known as "Lent".
The Ordo offers two exhortations to be said by the Priest or the Deacon as the Ashes, the burnt Palms from the prior years Passion/Palm Sunday, are rubbed into the penitent's forehead. "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel" or "Remember you are dust and to dust you will return".
During these forty days the Lord Jesus Christ invites us to walk with Him on the Way of the Cross. This simple but solemn Ash Wednesday service is an invitation every year to those who have eyes to comprehend its opportunity. It is up to us to accept it and open its potential through our response, our free choice, to participate in its potential.
To an age enamored with false concepts of "choice" the Catholic Church rightly insists that some "choices" are always and everywhere wrong. She teaches that what is chosen not only affects the world - but changes the "chooser." These words from Saint Gregory of Nyssa, quoted in the Catechism as well as in Blessed John Paul II's Encyclical Letter, "The Splendor of Truth", give some insights concerning our choices:
"Now, human life is always subject to change: it needs to be born ever anew.but here birth does not come about by a foreign intervention, as is the case with bodily beings, it is the result of a free choice. Thus we are in a certain way our own parents, creating ourselves as we will, by our decisions."
Freedom has consequences - and our choices not only affect the world around us, they change us - make us to become the persons we become. The capacity to make choices is what makes us human persons. It reflects the "Imago Dei," the Image of God, present within every human person.
As the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council wrote in their wonderful document on the Mission of the Church in the Modern World, "Authentic freedom is an outstanding manifestation of the divine image within man." (Gaudium et Spes, "Joy and Hope," 17).
The Catechism also addresses the sobering implications of the exercise human freedom when it reminds us that "Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself." (CCC, 1861.) In other words, what we choose truly matters. Authentic Human Freedom cannot be realized in decisions made against God and against the Natural Law.
Authentic freedom has a moral constitution. It must be exercised in reference to the truth concerning the human person, the family, our obligations in solidarity to one another and the common good. That is why the fullness of authentic human freedom is ultimately found in a relationship with the God who is its source and who alone can set us free. Because of the effects of sin, our freedom has been fractured. Only the splint of the Cross can restore it.
In his encyclical letter on Faith and Reason, Blessed John Paul wrote: "It is not just that freedom is part of the act of faith: it is absolutely required. Indeed, it is faith that allows individuals to give consummate expression to their own freedom. Put differently, freedom is not realized in decisions made against God."
"For how could it be an exercise of true freedom to refuse to be open to the very reality which enables our self-realization? Men and women can accomplish no more important act in their lives than the act of faith; it is here that freedom reaches the certainty of truth and chooses to live in that truth." (Fides et Ratio # 13)
Choosing the good is the pathway to the realization of the fullness of authentic human freedom. Again the Catechism of the Catholic Church is helpful "The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to "the slavery of sin." (Cf. Rom 6:17) (CCC 1733)
Ash Wednesday begins a period of protracted prayer, penance, meditation and ascetical practices(acts befitting our true repentance) which is called "Lent", a word which is derived from the "lengthening" of the hours of the day every year. It is no accident that Lent falls in this transition time in the seasons, when we move from the barrenness of winter with its long periods of darkness into the verdant new life and longer days of sunshine we call spring.
Our Baptism calls us to live in a naturally supernatural manner. The Church as mother and teacher often uses the symbols of nature to point us toward and help to obtain a supernatural effect. These symbols, such as the ashes which will be placed upon our heads, are to be viewed with the eyes of living faith.
In other places in the universal Church, this penitential season is also called the "Forty Days". That phrase has a deeply symbolic meaning. The Sacred Scriptures (the "Bible") speak to us on many levels. One level which we moderns in the West are often not aware of is its use of numbers as symbolic language. Symbols open us to a deeper truth. For example, it is no accident that a child is usually in the in the womb for forty weeks, the fullness of the term. Forty stands for a time of fulfillment or completion.
There are several forty periods in the history of Salvation found in the Old Testament of our Bible. For example, the Forty days Moses was on the Mountain and received the Law (Exodus 24:18). The story of the spies recorded in the Book of Numbers results in their being sentenced for Forty years, (Numbers 13:26, 14:34). There were Forty days for the great Prophet Elijah in Horeb,(1 Kings 19:8). The prophet Jonah was sent to Ninevah for Forty days. and of course, the Israelites wandered in the desert for Forty years.
However, the greatest significance of the number comes as God's entire plan of salvation was taken up and fulfilled in the mission of Jesus Christ. In Him is revealed the New Israel and the New Law. He is the New Lawgiver. He, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. The world was created through Him. (John 1) He is the Word Incarnate. Through His Incarnation, creation begins again. He gives the forty day Lenten period its penultimate meaning.
This One in whom the fullness of the Godhead dwells shows us the very meaning of our lives. He "fully reveals man to himself" in the words of the Council Fathers. (GS #22) He also shows us the great dignity to which we are now called - and actually capacitated by grace, to become, in, through and with Him.
This forty days calls us into the desert with Him. There, He who knew no sin (2 Cor. 5:21), a man like us "in all things but sin" enters into the temptations we face and shows us the way to overcome them. (Heb. 2 and 4) He was was tempted of the Devil for Forty days in the desert (Matthew 4:2). In Him we can now overcome temptation and progress toward the freedom to which we are called.
After a saving life of selfless love, He mounted the Second Tree of the Cross and opened His arms to embrace the world which had rejected God. Now, His voluntary sacrifice of Love complete, the Tomb is empty. Death, the final enemy and result of sin, has been defeated and the fruits of the redemption are being borne!
He was seen in His resurrected glory by his disciples for Forty days.(Acts 1:2) During that time he continued to prepare the New Israel, His Church, which had been birthed from the water and blood which flowed from His wounded side on Calvary. To that Church he entrusted his continuing redemptive mission until His glorious return. To that Church he entrusted His Word, His Spirit and Sacramental grace.
Our Forty day observance of this Holy Season of Lent inserts us, every year of our life, into this stream of God's action in human history. It invites us anew to participate in the great mystery of living and saving faith in the Savior in order to appropriate it more fully and make it our own.
Each of the forty day or forty year periods mentioned above was preparatory. So it can be for us as enter each year into Lent. The Church, our Mother and Teacher, invites us to empty ourselves through fasting, abstinence, prayer,charity and almsgiving. We do battle with the disordered appetites and passions which are a bad fruit of the effects of sin. The purpose, so that we can be set free, made new, and filled afresh with God's Divine Life and Love.
During Lent we engage in spiritual warfare. (See, 2 Cor. 10:4, Eph 6: 14 - 16) We do battle with the "world", the "flesh" and, yes, the Devil. Satan, the father of lies (John 8:44), is the enemy of Christ and therefore the enemy of all who seek to attain the fullness of salvation in Him. During these forty days we are invited to say "yes" to every grace offered to us. However, the choice is ours. Through grace we can can progress in our continuing conversion. We can more closely follow Jesus Christ who is the "leader and perfecter" of our faith.
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us of the leadership Jesus provided as an example for us in these words: "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith."
"For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God. Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart."
"In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood. You have also forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as sons: "My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges." (Hebrews 12: 1-6)
So, we ask the question, who needs Lent? We do. It is an invitation every year to more fully receive God's grace - Divine Life. If we enter into Lent with our entire person, it can draw us at its' closure, into a deeper embrace of the power of the Resurrection, beginning right now.Liturgy is the "work" (that is what the word means) of the faithful.Lent is a powerful liturgical season. However, to borrow an adage from the recovery movement, it "only works if you work it".
Every Lent is a reminder of our mortality. "Remember you are dust and to dust you will return" is a time for us to pause and reflect. In an age drunk on self worship, a reminder of the brevity of our days should draw us to our knees. From there we can look up at the Cross which bridges heaven and earth. There at the altar of the New World, Christ became our Paschal Sacrifice. There we can climb into His wounded side.
Afer receiving the ashes, leave the Church as penitents and pilgrims. Let the Holy Spirit shine the Light in those dark places. Make a good confession, pray more, genuinely fast, live in God's Word, frequent the Sacraments - and most especially the Holy Eucharist. Embrace the poor and needy - in all of their manifestations - and find Jesus in your arms.During these forty days we walk toward the celebration of the Easter Triduum, the three High Holy days. It is time to be signed with ashes. Ash Wednesday Calls us to Turn Away from Sin and be Faithful to the Gospel.
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