Ash Wednesday: "Return to me, says the Lord, with your whole heart"

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By Father Javier González Izquierdo, OP

Ashes: “Repent and believe”

There is something in today’s name that makes it unique: ashes. Churchgoers and those who partake in today’s liturgy are signed with ashes on their foreheads. They go back to their pews (and to their homes, I suppose) with either happy or worrisome faces, depending on their age or mood. I have seen, for instance, groups of children hurryingly approaching to receive the ashes with much more eagerness and joyful faces than when approaching to receive Holy Communion; and, on the contrary, I have seen adults doing the same thing with distressed faces, almost to the point of tears. In between, a grand variety of people with a mixture of feelings reflected in their faces as a reaction to the ashes’ symbolism. On the air, the same meaningful words: “Repent and believe in the Gospel”. They are positive, encouraging words; indeed much more than those dramatic words of old times: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” But in both cases, they contain a call to conversion, to return to the Lord with our hearts and with our lives.

“Return to the Lord…”

The Word of God irrupts powerfully in today’s liturgy from the mouth of the prophet Joel: “Return to me, says the Lord, with your whole heart…” When a driver realizes that he or she has taken the wrong road, not leading to destination, he or she makes a turn [“con-version”] to take the right road; when a walker discovers that he or she is walking along a path that leads to a wrong destination, he or she makes a turn [“con-version”] to take the right way. Thus, when I, as a Christian, follower of Christ, realize that am living a life unworthy of my vocation, my wisest and urgent decision will be to make a turn (“con-version”) in my life to take the right path. Today, the first day of the Lenten season, is a privileged moment to do it. Today, as I set my course for a ‘forty day’ journey, I make some necessary adjustments in my life-style so as to retake the right path, walking in the presence of the Lord, reconciling myself with God.  

“Be reconciled to God”

St Paul implored the Corinthians and today implores us: “Be reconciled to God”. Such should be our response to God’s invitation to return to Him. God gets never tired of forgiving for “gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness”. In contrast, we are the ones, Pope Francis says, that get tired of asking God for forgiveness. Reconciliation with God is a fruit of the Spirit needed to find peace within ourselves and to be able to forgive others. In the end, reconciliation with God means reconciliation with one another and with ourselves, too. The celebration of the sacrament of Penance during the Lenten season is a must, with the focus of attention not on our sins, but on God’s forgiving love. After all, there is nothing to celebrate about the fact that we are sinners; but plenty to celebrate about the fact that God is a loving Father who forgives us freely. No payment required, no explanations or excuses needed, no penance demanded other than a grateful life of service in exchange for such Fatherly love.

“When you pray…When you give alms… When you fast…”

These three words (prayer, almsgiving, fast) summarize a meaningful program for this Lenten season. Forty days which we must see as an “acceptable time” for more serious prayer, for some specific gift of alms to charity and for a well-chosen penitential act. “By devoting more time to prayer, we find God’s consolation; almsgiving sets us free from greed and helps us to regard our neighbour as a brother or sister; whereas fasting weakens our tendency to violence”, Pope Francis recently wrote. One thing is required: right motivation. Whatever I choose, I will keep between my heavenly Father and me. These pious works of penance are to be expressions of gratitude to God for his goodness. But if my giving is intended to force God to give me later in return; if my fasting is intended to accumulate merits that God had to honour later in justice to me; if my almsgiving is ordered to demand God’s payment later for my generosity… then something is very wrong and I would find myself recriminated in the words of Jesus in today’s gospel passage. Definitively, God’s ways do not adjust to our business mentality of do ut des, nor to our moralism. On the contrary, my giving to others is only an expression of love to God for having given me already everything! And my struggling to lead a good moral life is not intended to “buy” my salvation, but rather to thank God for having saved me already!

“Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned”

Lent is a time to reflect and ask ourselves what we would be without God’s mercy that never tires of forgiving us and always gives us the chance to begin anew. Lent is the time to ask ourselves where we would be without the help of so many people who in a thousand quiet ways have stretched out their hands and in very concrete ways given us hope and enabled us to make a new beginning. Lent is the time to open our hearts to the breath of the One capable of turning our dust into humanity. It is the time to make room in our life for all the good we are able to do. Lent is a time to implore God’s mercy, for we have sinned:

Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;

In the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offence.

Thoroughly wash me from my guilt and of my sin cleans me.

For I acknowledge my offense and my sin is before me always.

“Against you only have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight”

A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me.

Cast me not out from your presence, and your Holy Spirit take not from me.

Give me back the joy of your salvation, and a willing spirit sustain in me.

O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.