From an article today on Ash Wednesday, posted at www.catholic.org –
“Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Season of Lent. It is a season of penance, reflection, and fasting which prepares us for Christ’s Resurrection on Easter Sunday, through which we attain redemption.”
Two thoughts: first, our penance and and reflection gain us nothing. Hebrews 10 says, “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats [and palms – my emphasis] to take away sins.” (Hebrews 10:1-4). According to (http://www.keyway.ca/htm2000/20000718.htm), “burnt offerings symbolized the total dedication of the offering unto God (completely consumed by fire so that it was available for nothing else), and the ascending (the rising smoke) of the offering to God in heaven.” Palms and Lent last only for a season; even these animal sacrifices in the Old Testament could only symbolically satisfy for a season. We needed a sacrifice which would be total and complete, lasting forever.
Romans 5:8 says, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” We could do nothing to earn this precious redemption, nor can we now. It is a free gift of grace, to which we respond (Romans 8:31 ff), “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” And, “In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:31-32 and 38-39). How then should we live? Not in penance, but in rejoicing!
Secondly, catholic means universal. This is a precious gift for the entire world, not one branch of one church. These ashes should represent the sacrifice burned at the altar for our sins. In times past it was an animal sacrifice; but in our history it was Jesus Himself, the precious Son of God who gave His life as a ransom for us. Only a perfect spotless sacrifice could atone for our continual wanton sinful lives.
Let this Ash Wednesday be a day of remembrance, not of duty and ceremony and obligation, and then a return to the same. Let it remind us of what was done for us which we could not do ourselves. Let the ashes represent what the Old Testament meant for burnt offerings to represent: that of the offering’s entire consumption, and the offerer’s complete surrender unto God. And may God be pleased with the offering of our lives to Him, and use our lives to His own glory!