Ash Wednesday is an official fast day of the Church whereby the people of God bear ashes to recall their sinful ways and their mortality in this life, and to unite with our brethren in a communal act of repentance. Fasting and wearing of ashes is an age-old practice of the Catholic Church with deeply ancient Jewish roots. A careful reading of the Old Testament passage for Ash Wednesday, Joel 2:12-18, shows the ultimate meaning of Ash Wednesday, to prepare the hearts and minds of God’s people to repent and receive his salvation in Christ. The Church on Ash Wednesday, much like Joel’s community in the Old Testament, offers supplication to God for His mercy and deliverance.
While Ash Wednesday is a public act of fasting and repentance, it signifies an interior disposition. The Church calls the people of God during Lent to private prayer, fasting, and almsgiving as a sign of interior dispositions toward God as Joel 2:14 describes. Lent is a time for sinners to repent and return to God’s mercy. God wants the people of Judah and the people of the Church to “rend their hearts”, that is internally repent and turn away from sin and toward God’s loving salvation.
The reading of Joel 2:12-18 is paired purposefully with the New Testament reading for Ash Wednesday, Matthew 6, the Sermon on the Mount. The Church shows that, while Ash Wednesday is a time of communal contrition as described by the prophet Joel, Jesus emphasizes private penance, praying, fasting and almsgiving in secret. Jesus exhorts, “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt 6:1). Jesus warns of spiritual pridefulness. A carefully reading of Matthew unveils the Church’s tri-fold teaching on the season of Lent: to pray, to fast, and to give alms. This tri-fold teaching is the remedy to the tri-fold sin of Adam: lust of the flesh (the fruit is good to eat), lust of the eyes (the desire to possess), and pride of life (to be like God). Jesus, being the new Adam, is led by the Spirit into the desert, a place in stark juxtaposition of Eden’s Paradise, in order to battle these three temptations, that of pleasure (turn stone into bread), possessions (possess all the kingdoms of the world), and pride (prove to the world he is the son of God). Jesus overcomes them all, through his obedience to God, the Father. Lent calls us to the same battle as we unite more closely with our Savior. For 40 days we fast certain days to overcome our disordered attachment to physical pleasure. For 40 days, we intensify our giving of alms to overcome our disordered attachment to possessions. Lastly, for 40 days, we intensify our prayer to overcome our disordered self-love, our pride. These three spiritual disciplines are at the essence of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
We may ask ourselves, “How during this Lent am I going to, fast more, give alms to the poor, and pray more, so that I can grow in overcoming the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and pride? May this Lent increase holiness in us all so that we can truly say with St. Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20).
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