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  • Writer's pictureFather Puddleglum

Ash Wednesday 2023

We are a funny lot, we Catholics. Every year on a Wednesday we shun meat, make ourselves hungry, and smear ashes on our foreheads. Without any context or information extra to what I have just given you we would seem pretty silly. But all of the practices we have as Catholics, even if they might seem strange, carry a meaning with them. They symbolize some other reality. The use of ashes is no exception.

We are formed from dust and one day we will return to dust. The ashes used on Ash Wednesday come from burning the palms used on Palm Sunday from the previous year. These palms were once part of a living and growing entity. They were harvested, eventually dried out, and died. Isn’t this the same process that will eventually happen to us? Therefore, ashes remind us of death. Our lives will end and our bodies will return to the earth. The ashes smeared on our foreheads remind us of the dirt that will one day rattle on our coffin after we have been lowered in the ground. When that day comes of what value will our earthly trophies and accomplishments be? What of our sporting achievements or our hobbies? How will the size of your bank account help you? How will your collections and possessions be of any use? We are dust and to dust we will one day return.

I don’t say all of this to be macabre. I am simply stating a fact which we all know but do not contemplate nearly enough. We are supposed to always be prepared and ready to meet our Lord. But Lent is a time of heightened vigilance, a time of intensified preparation. We must repent and turn back to God. And the Church offers us guidance in our means and tools of preparation: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Christ Himself tells us that when we take up these three practices our heavenly Father who sees us will repay us. But why?

Quite simply, all three of these practices reorient our hearts towards that one thing which truly matters which is our relationship with God. Setting time aside for prayer focuses our minds and hearts on God, getting to know Him and letting Him speak to us. Fasting is the exercise of saying no to something good in order to purify our desires and train our hearts to love the things we ought to love. You can fast from food. In an age growing more and more addicted to technology I recommend fasting from social media, tv, or other forms of digital entertainment. Almsgiving is an exercise in charity. It is a means by which we use our earthly wealth to store up treasure in Heaven. Almsgiving detaches our hearts from earthly goods and possessions.

Let’s make the most of this Lenten season and prepare our hearts through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving not only for the celebration of Easter but for our own personal death and resurrection. And do not be discouraged if you falter in your penances. Our Lord knows that we are dust. We need to be reminded of this truth once a year but He remembers it all the time. God knows the flaws that predispose us to this or that bad habit. He knows the force of every temptation. If we are tempted to lose heart because we so often fall short of our own ideals, it is important once again to remember that we are dust. Our Lord knows our weakness and does not scorn us. He loves us enough to call us beyond our weakness to repentance.

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