"You are dust and unto dust you shall return" (Gen 3:19).
God, who is unseen, speaks through the prophets and says to the people, repent, come back to me who am your merciful, compassionate God. Remember and repent!
In Joel 2:12-18, God urges us to return to God, fasting, weeping and mourning. It is a call to repent from sin. Our human condition has caused us to reject God and to follow the dictates of our own hearts, which have led us away from God who patiently awaits our return.
The first step towards conversion is becoming conscious of our inordinate desires for transient and perishable things that draw us away from God. Subtly, the enemy of our human nature has drawn us away from God and has instead focused our attention and energies on our selves, our self-fabricated god. This god, our ego, displaces God’s compassionate love with its emptiness and leads us to crave things that are not life-giving: the many “isms” that lead us to sin against God and to commit injustices against our fellow human beings and planet Earth. These are the sins that we are called to turn away from and to focus our attention on what God desires for us, that is, a clean heart that will enable us to respond to God’s will in our lives. Therefore we are called to repent and to believe in Christ, God’s living Word (Mk 1:15); and when we do, God’s compassion and abounding love will restore our fullness of being.
The ashes that we receive on the forehead this day not only remind us of our mortality but also mark the beginning of a transformative process that leads to union with God. Through repentance, the old self that seeks its own glory dies and we take on the true self that enables us to discern and to act according to God’s will.
As we receive the ashes we recall Christ’s death and resurrection and accept the death of the false self that is dust and will return to dust. Through the prophet Joel, God instructs us to rend our hearts and not our garments, to uproot the false self from within us. Turning away from things that have given us false comfort, security and joy is a painful process. We weep and mourn because we realize that our sinfulness has hurt and separated us from the love of God. Instead of fulfilling our deep desires, sin has carved a chasm between God and us; it has left a vacuum within us.
On Ash Wednesday, we take the first step towards bridging the chasm that separates us from God. Penitent and humble, we silently let the priest or minister mark our foreheads with ashes. However, we need to listen attentively as the priest recites the words “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” and let this message soak into our being like rain that falls over parched land. It is a warning to turn away from sin and also an invitation to enter the process of transformation. One by one we let go of the sins that have caused suffering in others, in our universe and has drawn us away from God. We resolve to reject practices that draw us away from God and impede our spiritual growth.
The Parish of Santa Ana in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where I ministered for several years, asked the faithful to bring a piece of wood and with those contributions built an outdoor bonfire. In that fire, the faithful would throw pieces of paper on which they had listed the sins that they wanted to see uprooted and burnt from within their hearts, families, and nation. For us, the ashes that we receive today were once palm branches with which we recalled Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem that are now reminders of our sinful past. Today’s Scripture readings urge us to repent of the past so as to embrace a new transformed life that God ignites within us and with it, a desire to love and serve others.
In order to embrace the mission of Christ, we need to strengthen the spirit through fasting, prayer and good works that are done in secret (Mt. 6: 1-6, 16-18). As Jesus who, in preparation for his ministry, fasted and prayed in the desert, we too need to fortify our spiritual life through fasting, prayer, and good works. These ascetic practices fortify the soul against the temptations of the enemy who seduces us into returning to the practices that we have rejected. Athletes undergo rigorous practices to intensify their vigor, so does the ascetic practice of prayer and fasting. Referring to the practice of prayer, fasting, and self-discipline, Saint Anthony of Egypt says that the soul’s intensity is strong when the pleasures of the body are weakened (Athanasius’ Life of Anthony, 36). The reception of ashes marks the beginning of intense ascetic practices of prayer, self-discipline, and almsgiving by which the soul is purified on its pilgrimage towards union with God. May God grant us the grace to repent and believe the Good News! (Mk 1, 15).