“Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.” So began the solemn season of Lent yesterday as millions of people around the world had ashes smeared on their foreheads.
Ash Wednesday is a day when Catholics, whether faithful or fallen away, prominently display ashes on their foreheads. Yet many fail to understand their authentic meaning.
Ashes are an outward sign of the call to conversion for people of faith that is the hallmark of the season of Lent. Over the next 40 days, the faithful and the fallen away are called to take up the challenge to truly repent of their sins and truly reconcile with God and their neighbor.
Pope Benedict XVI suggests: “It is certainly not merely ritualistic, but something very deep that touches our hearts. It makes us understand the timeliness of the Prophet Joel’s advice, advice that still retains its salutary value for us: external gestures must always be matched by a sincere heart and consistent behavior.”
The real meaning of ashes on a forehead is the reminder that it is from ashes we come, and to ashes we shall return. Lent offers a time to reconcile our lives before our God through penance and good works. The ashes worn so proudly by so many are not a fashion statement of faith, but rather a gesture of penance 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 in the kitchen sink.