“Repent and believe in the Gospel.” So began the solemn season of Lent yesterday as millions across the globe received ashes on their foreheads. Ash Wednesday is a day that sees churches packed with the faithful and the fallen away as they make the annual pilgrimage for ashes.
It is a day when the Christian world begins 40 days of turning away from sin and embracing the Gospel.
For many, Ashes have become the hallmark of what it means to be a Catholic. Among the faithful this simple sacramental is challenged in popularity only by the giving of palm branches on Palm Sunday. It seems that when the church gives something out that many will come to receive it. Whether faithful or fallen away ashes are prominently displayed on foreheads for the entire world to see.
Yet so often lost in this rush for ashes on the sacred Wednesday is their authentic meaning. Ashes are an outward sign of the call to conversion for people of faith, a time to repent and truly believe in the Gospel. For over the next 40 days the faithful and the fallen away are called to take up the challenge of converting their lives more closely to God. Pope Benedict XVI suggests: “We who are called to convert our hearts to God, in the constant awareness that we cannot achieve conversion on our own, with our own efforts, because it is God who converts us. Furthermore, he offers us his forgiveness, asking us to return to him, to give us a new heart cleansed of the evil that clogs it, to enable us to share in his joy. Our world needs to be converted by God, it needs his forgiveness, his love, it needs a new heart.”
The authentic reception of ashes is to reconcile our lives before our God through prayer, fasting and almsgiving before we return to ashes ourselves. Foreheads marked by ashes are not merely a fashion statement of faith but rather a call to conversion that “must always be matched by a sincere heart and consistent behavior.” Unless the ashes of yesterday are converted today into turning away from sin and embracing God, they are an empty gesture to be tossed in the dust bin or washed away. Those who had their heads smeared with Lenten ashes would be wise to remember the watchwords of Lent: “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”