The Ash Wednesday agenda

The sign of the Cross on Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of a time of mercy for our redemption and salvation through Christ’s suffering, passion, and death on the cross.

The cross is God’s mark of love for us.

How do we feel on this day, the beginning of Lent?  Is there a sense of trepidation, that we are facing an arduous period of sacrifice, self-denial, and penance?  Do we think about loss and what we have to give up?  Or do we see this time as an opportunity for cleansing, introspection, and renewal through facing the truth of our lives, walking alongside Christ in His sorrow, and seeing parallels of His pain in ours?

Every day we are faced with so many groups or individuals who have their own agendas, trying to influence our minds and souls.  They tell us that their way is the truth, and that Christ’s Lenten journey or God Himself is simply a fable.  But they are wrong.  The fact is that we are sinners and we need to change.  We need to take the time to stop adoring money, fame, superficial living, and prestige to adopt the humble and simple way of Christ.  His way is the poor way.  His way is the painful narrow path, and one which may leave us feeling abnormal or outcast in our society.

But God’s agenda is ultimately all about love.  His plan is the only one that matters because it is based on truth and brings us healing.  His Lenten journey saves us through His great mercy which leads us to heaven if we listen to Him, act with courage, and follow His Word.  Today we proudly display our commitment to this journey with the cross of ash on our foreheads, reminding us that we were created by God from dust, and that we will again become dust after we leave our mortal bodies.

When I was much younger this was scary to think about.  I am nothing but dust?  I will crumble to ashes when I die?  Who will find me?  Who will remember me?  Young people may not want to think about such things when their lives are in full bloom and many years are ahead of them.  But any one of us can die at any time, regardless of our age, and so it is wise to think about our mortality and where we will spend eternity.  It heightens our awareness about the importance of living a good and holy life because we may meet God at any time.

To many of us ash is grey and dull.  Perhaps no one would say that it is their favourite colour to look at or wear because ash has negative connotations.  It is something left over after bushfires, a volcano eruption, or after some other disaster has taken place.

But ash is important for us as Christians.  It is an honest substance, the colour of humility, raw emotion, and repentance.  We can refer to many references to ash or ashes in the Bible, when people and communities would finally awaken to their sins and plea “for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes” (Daniel 9:3) or who even sit in ashes (Job 2:8 and Jonah 3:6) and cry while they are doing so.  Being in amongst the ashes, literally and figuratively, is when we are at the lowest times of our lives.  We are sorry for our sins and show God that we have truly hit rock bottom, while crying out for Him to lift us up.

Going to Mass on Ash Wednesday is therefore an important part of our Catholic life.  We not only display the cross of Christ on our faces, but especially need to hear His message deep within our hearts:

“Repent, and believe in the Gospel” or
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Wikipedia)

In the past, after attending Ash Wednesday Mass at a church near my workplace during my lunch break, I would wipe off the ash from my forehead just before I entered my building and returned to my desk.  I didn’t want people to stare at me or think I was strange.  But I stopped doing that because I realised that I was removing a very important part of my identity and beliefs.  I was also denying myself and others the opportunity to share in God’s love.  Now I always leave the big black mark of the cross on my face so that others will deliberately see God’s agenda.

The cross on us makes everyone notice Him, think about Him, and (we hope) remember that we must return to true life in Him.  Literally, God is in and on our face for a reason!  We are marked people and should be proud to be so.

It is also very important and symbolic that we receive the ashes on our head, where the seat of our thoughts and our brain resides.  We note in the Bible how “Tamar put ashes on her head” (2 Samuel 13:19).  When we meet people we know or strangers in the street, they most often first look into our eyes and therefore into our soul.  On Ash Wednesday they can also see that the sign of the cross is the focus for us, right between our eyes.  This makes it clear to everyone that the cross needs to be front and centre of our lives.

So this Ash Wednesday, do not be afraid to receive the sign of the cross on you.  Embrace it, for it is the sign of God’s love for you.  It is also a sign of strength and forgiveness.  Although the Lenten journey will not be easy, we are assured that Christ is with us every single step of the way.

The most amazing truth is that even though we are sinners in the desert, God loves us above and beyond anything in the universe – more than the stars and the moon, more than the little brown sparrows scavenging for food in the street, and more than all of the mountains and rivers which have existed on earth since creation.  This Lent, remember just how much we are cherished by Him.

Further reading: https://catholicexchange.com/dust-message-ash-wednesday

Ashes to Ashes by Dan Schutte

Ashes to ashes, from dust unto dust.
The cross on our forehead, your promise, O God.
Ready us to follow the way of your Son,
to rise from these ashes,
redeemed in the fire of your love.

Sound the trumpet in Zion, announce from the Lord
that the day of God’s favour is ever close at hand.

Ashes to ashes, from dust unto dust.
The cross on our forehead, your promise, O God.
Ready us to follow the way of your Son, to rise from these ashes,
redeemed in the fire of your love.

Rend your hearts, not your garments; return to the Lord,
who delights when we offer a truly humble heart.

Ashes to ashes, from dust unto dust.
The cross on our forehead, your promise, O God.
Ready us to follow the way of your Son,
to rise from these ashes,
redeemed in the fire of your love.

We have seen in the heavens and held in our arms
what the hand of our Maker can fashion out of dust.

Ashes to ashes, from dust unto dust.
The cross on our forehead, your promise, O God.
Ready us to follow the way of your Son,
to rise from these ashes,
redeemed in the fire of your love.

Copyright 2013, Daniel L. Schutte. Published by OCP.

Image courtesy of Oxh973 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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