Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent and occurs forty days before Easter (excluding Sundays). It falls on a different date each year, because it is dependent on the date of Easter; it can occur as early as Feb 4 or as late as Mar 10.
Ash Wednesday gets its name from the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of the faithful as a sign of repentance. The ashes used are gathered after the palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday are burned. In the liturgical practice of some churches, the ashes are mixed with the Oil of the Catechumens, though some churches use ordinary oil. This paste is used by the clergyman who presides at the service to make the sign of the cross, first upon his own forehead and then on each of those present. As he does so, he recites the words: “Remember (O man) that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Ash Wednesday is a day of repentance and it marks the beginning of Lent. Ashes were used in ancient times, according to the Bible, to express mourning. Dusting oneself with ashes was the penitent’s way of expressing sorrow for sins and faults.
Penitence is an essential part of the Christian life, for none of us can measure up to the tremendous vocation that is ours as Christians. We are in constant need of the mercy and forgiveness of God. Today we express this by taking part in an impressive corporate act of penitence and reconciliation, beseeching God for the grace to use with profit the ‘favourable time’ of preparation for the celebration of Christ’s Passover feast.
- the Sunday Missal
2 Cor 5:20-6:2
Behold, now is a very acceptable time; Behold now is the day of salvation
We have just celebrated a new year, according to the Chinese calendar. It’s out with the old and in with the new!
Today marks the beginning of Lent, a period of fasting and penitence. As with most things, there are two sides to the coin. While we herald in a new year and hope for new (good) luck, how prepared are we in our hearts to receive the tidings of new beginnings? Have we reflected upon our lives in the preceding months? Where have we fallen short? Do we know where that was and have we repented for it? Have we scrutinized our hearts and conduct enough to say, “Lord, I have learnt! And now I return”? And how are we returning to God? Are we returning with a subconscious nonchalance or are we returning with our hearts in our hands?
If I may speak candidly, Ash Wednesday this year will bear some significance for me. Today is the day that I will separate myself from an untenable situation that I let prolong for far too long. God has been quietly showing me all the signs but each time I negotiated to stay, to test it out, and see how far I could push myself. Then one night not too long ago, I lifted my prayer wholeheartedly up to God and said, “If I am too dense or stubborn, open my eyes Lord and show me the way!” In that moment, torn between the dilemma of staying or going, I surrendered my future up to God.
I have made this prayer several times to God before, but I understand now, reading today’s second reading, what God means when He says, “In an acceptable time, I heard you, and on the day of salvation I helped you.” Though I had prayed the same prayer countless times, I had only done so half-heartedly, on my terms. In that moment when I surrendered my prayer to God, I was desperate and indecisive, tired of being blind to God’s guidance, and of my own stubbornness. I knew I had those faults, but I also recognized and accepted that I couldn’t fix them on my own. In that moment, I accepted that it was no longer my terms, but God’s will. In that moment, in my situation, God said, “This now, is an acceptable time, and I will help you.” And He did. He opened my eyes, and showed me the way.
The Lord implored us in the first reading, “Return to me with your whole heart”, with a reminder that God is full of kindness and mercy, slow to anger. The process leading up to today, while liberating, has also been painful, but then God reminds us that all pain of correction is only temporary. He has a better path laid out for us, and we need to keep the faith. This period of Lent is a time for inward reflection, a time for surrender, for forgiveness. Let this too be a time when God says to all of us, “This now, my child, is an acceptable time”.
(Today’s Oxygen by Annette Soo)
Prayer: Lord, during this period of Lent, help us stay the course and keep the faith, in prayer, reflection, and repentance, and transform our hearts in the process to turn back to you.
Thanksgiving: Lord, thank you for your kindness and mercy, for your patience when we seek our terms instead of surrendering to your will. Thank you for showing me the way, for opening my eyes when I was too blind to see that my terms were doing more harm than good. Blessed be God forever!