The use of ashes as a symbol of repentance was a recognised practice in Old Testament times. Jesus also referred to the use of ashes as a sign of repentance: Jesus said, “If the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes” (Matthew 11:21). In the early Church those desiring to be baptised began a period of public penance on the first day of Lent. They were covered with sackcloth and sprinkled with ashes, and obliged to remain apart from the Christian community until Holy Thursday. By the tenth century, a derivation of the practice was claimed for the entire church – a practice we will follow today – by placing ashes on the foreheads of the entire congregation, making the sign of the cross.
The ashes we will receive today have a two-fold purpose: they offer us a reminder and an invitation.
They are a reminder of our mortality. Live today – live every day – with an awareness of the preciousness of life. Use the resources entrusted to you wisely, express gratitude constantly for all the blessings of this life, give generously, live fully; because this life will end.
We pray that we may not be “hard-hearted,” indifferent to the needs of the poor and the suffering, but that we may be given “broken and contrite hearts,” hearts broken open and emptied of self in order that they might be filled with the love and compassion of God. So, these ashes serve as a reminder: a reminder of our mortality; a reminder of our poverty, and of the poverty of others.
They also serve as an invitation. They invite us to repentance. They invite us to turn again to God and to receive new life. They invite us to renew the promises we made at our baptisms, renouncing evil and putting our trust in God.
In a few moments, we will be invited to observe “a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word”. Many of us will take on some form of spiritual discipline or ascetic practice over the next forty days. We may choose to give up something, to fast from certain kinds of food, for example, or from unhealthy habits. We may choose to give up worry, or regret, or revenge; or to fast from jealousy or anger.
Or we may choose to take on something for Lent – some regular practice of prayer, perhaps. We may adopt some practice that helps us live a more balanced life. We may give alms. We may seek time for silence and solitude, or go on retreat. We may set aside time each day to read and meditate on scripture. We may choose to perform “random acts of kindness” to alleviate the suffering of others. We may decide to do something selfless.
Whatever we choose to do or not do as a sign of our repentance and commitment, let us do it whole-heatedly, not to impress God or others or ourselves with our goodness, but genuinely humbling ourselves before God, seeking God’s mercy and opening ourselves to the power of God to convert and transform our lives.
What are these ashes? An invitation to life – the true life, the abundant life, the eternal life that God has promised us in Christ. Receive them with sorrow, yes, but also with joy!