I do not know that a consecrated person has a greater duty than any other person to practice the three classic penitential actions of Lent—prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—, but clearly he/she has the responsibility to take these practices very seriously during this season. Listen to these words that no less than the archangel Raphael addresses to Tobit and his son:
“Prayer with fasting is good. Almsgiving with righteousness is better than wealth with wickedness. It is better to give alms than to store up gold . . .” (Tob 12:8)
Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. One can argue that these three actions describe one of the gifts from Judaism to Christianity. Their association in Jesus’ ancestral faith undoubtedly drew them together in his mind for the Sermon which we hear every Ash Wednesday.
Unfailingly on this day, some people find a disconnect between the Gospel reading and the marking of our foreheads with ashes. The Gospel tells us not to call attention to ourselves when we give alms, or when we pray, or when we fast. Yet, when we begin our Lenten journey, we do draw eyes to our foreheads as we witness to our need for repentance. It seems inconsistent, but the inconsistency only arises when we consider the question of intent which the Gospel reading addresses. What do we intend when we mark ourselves with ashes? Is it to invite people to think better of us? Or are we genuinely reminding ourselves in a concrete way of our need for contrition and change of life?
Let me turn the matter around a little bit. Perhaps the real purpose of my ashes is for my brothers and sisters! During Ash Wednesday, I am much less aware of the imprint on my own brow than those on another’s. Those cinders witness for me again-and-again the beginning of Lent and the call for a change of life—just as I hope that my marking spurs the conscience of my neighbor. As I look around, the goal of the season emerges clearly. The ecclesial character of repentance and reform emerges through my community and contacts. When we see how the soot signs others, our need to take stock of our own lives appears as well.
The Lenten practice most ordinarily associated with the ashes is fasting. We read in the Book of Daniel (9:3): “I turned to the Lord God, to seek help, in prayer and petition, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes.” We are told not to cover ourselves with ashes, and not to walk around disheveled with a glum face, but rather to wash our faces, comb our hair, and look presentable. Our external comportment is not to draw undue attention to our internal disposition for fasting. Yet, when we create an emptiness inside, the opportunity to fill that space with something else surfaces. Discipline and awareness grow. We begin to focus on the essentials. Was it the empty belly of the Prodigal Son which drove him back to the Father? Was it Jesus’ recollection of his hunger in the desert that suggested to him his need to multiply the bread for the crowd? Was it the Rich Man’s lack of experience with need which caused him to ignore Lazarus? Fasting is a teacher for us if we are responsive to the lesson. Ashes are the heralds which summon us to attention.
Secondly, when we see these cinders on another, they can point us to our need to be aware of those who are poor in our world. They can call us to almsgiving. Lent incites us to be aware of our resources and generous with them. The ashes remind us that it is not just our bodies which will return to “dust” but all our holdings except the love of another (1 Cor 13:13). As little as we might have, we always have more than some people. (Remember the widow and her “mite!”) The opportunity and incitement during this season invites divesting and seeking a simpler life while striving to make the life of another easier. The ashes can call us to a repentance which softens our hearts and takes stock of those around us. What could be a more Vincentian attitude and commitment? Ashes on another can call this Vincentian service of sharing to mind.
Finally, our brothers/sisters’ ashes can remind us over-and over of our need to be people of prayer. Once again we are offered an opportunity for an examination of conscience with regard to our fidelity as well as sincerity in coming before the Lord. The ashes remind us of our mortality, of our fragility. This provides an excellent starting point for our prayer because we recall the immeasurable greatness of the one to whom we turn our eyes, before whom we bring ourselves. Vincent excelled in prompting his followers in the practice of the presence of God. It is one of my favorite passages from him:
“So now, this is what we have to do; first of all, place ourselves in the presence of God, considering him either as he is in heaven, seated on the throne of his majesty, from where he looks on us and contemplates all things; or in his immensity, present everywhere, here and elsewhere, in the highest heavens and in the lowest part of the abyss, reading our hearts and penetrating even the most secret folds of our conscience; or in his presence in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar: ‘O Savior, here I am, a weak and miserable sinner, here I am at the foot of the altars on which you repose; O Savior may I do nothing unworthy of this holy presence;’ or, lastly, within ourselves, pervading us entirely and dwelling in the depth of our hearts.” (SVdP, CCD 11 #168, p. 359)
As we accept the ashes, we make a statement of our faith. We are not afraid to be publicly marked as a Christian, and we are proud to bear witness to one another. Others are our mirrors as they remind us sporadically and unexpectedly of our need to grow in virtue and the opportunity which Lent affords. We begin our Lenten journey with this tangible sign of our sinfulness and fragility. We ask the Lord during this season to help us to reform our lives and believe more deeply in the Gospel.