Ash Wednesday 2017
In a few moments, ashes will be blessed and placed on our heads as a sign of repentance and conversion. It is the traditional way in which we begin Lent in the Western Church. The prayer of blessing takes its theme from the well-known words of the Prophet Ezequiel, "Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not that he should turn from his ways and live?" (Ez. 18:23) God has no wish for sinners to die, but that we repent and live. It is strange how some Christians seem to hate sinners and fail to recognise that they too are sinners, though our sins may differ. Jesus said, "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life." (Jn 3:16) Lent is a time, "a favourable time", for us to take stock of our sinfulness and, through God's mercy, find the healing remedy that will bring us to new life in Christ, as we prepare to celebrate the events of our salvation at Easter.
The prayer also speaks of "a steadfast observance of Lent". We don't need reminding that we give up too easily on our Lenten observances: it doesn't take long before we forget what we had promised to do. Not only that, but we tend to think negatively about what we want to give up rather than positively about what we should take on. St Bernard's advice is helpful. "Sorrow for sin is indeed necessary, but it should not involve endless self-preoccupation. You should dwell also on the glad remembrance of the loving kindness of God." Lent is not only a time for repentance; it is also a time to give thanks to God for his mercy and love.
On the First Sunday of Lent, St Jerome had this to say to his congregation, "If you have fasted for two days, do not for this reason think yourself better than those who have not. You fast and perhaps become angry; another eats, but perhaps exercises kindness." We all need to keep our passions in check, and Lent is a good time to begin. Fasting in the Christian tradition, of course, was meant to do just that. The purpose of fasting was not to become obsessive about food, even less about losing weight, but rather it was meant to help us control our passions and vices: pride, envy, wrath, sloth, greed, gluttony, lust, and, above all, anger. Fasting should encourage and strengthen in us the God-like virtues, above all, kindness. Nor should we forget that fasting goes hand in hand with almsgiving and prayer.
As we begin Lent, we ask God to pardon our sins and grant us newness of life, to create his image anew within us that we might grow into the likeness of Christ. May the good Lord be pleased to bless us all this Lent with the abundance of his grace. Amen.