Ash WednesdayIt always makes me cringe when I have to explain to my non-Catholic (and many times even the Catholic ones) why I receive ashes on Ash Wednesday. It isn’t that I don’t like talking about my faith. It isn’t that people don’t respect my faith. The problem is that people are too comfortable. The ideas that Ash Wednesday calls to mind are so foreign – austere, morbid and penitential. These are all things that modern people and Americans particularly are not eager to talk about.

Ash Wednesday is a solemn reminder of our mortality, our short life, and our impending death. The question invariably is a simple one. “Why”?  Why do we want to think about our death? Why not just live for today and be happy? The answer is as simple as the question. We must think of our death because we do not know when it will be.

We must not let the affairs of this world overshadow the realities of the next. Whatever we do on earth will be forgotten by future generations. This thought should temper our pride and help us to focus on what is important. The words of Ecclesiastes 1:3-4 bring this reality home: “What profit has man from all the labor which he toils at under the sun? One generation passes and another comes, but the world forever stays.” Matthew 24:44 exhorts us to remember that we do not know when we will die: ‘So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”

The imposition of Ashes upon our foreheads reminds us of our fleeting existence on earth: “Remember that thou art dust and to dust thou shall return”. The use of ashes was a symbol of grief, humility, and despair in the Old Testament. In Jeremiah, 6:26, sackcloth and ashes are used as a sign of mourning:  “O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes. Mourn as for an only child with bitter wailing, For sudden upon us comes the destroyer.” 2 Samuel 13:19 brings us the use of ashes as a sign of sadness: “Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the long tunic in which she was clothed. Then, putting her hands to her head, she went away crying loudly.”

Ash Wednesday brings us a second reality that we must acknowledge, which is our judgment before God when our earthly life is over. We must always be prepared for it, get our affairs in order, and clear our souls of the sinful baggage we haul around with us. If we are clinging to sin when we meet our death, then we must answer for it at our judgment.  Hebrews 9:27 reminds us: “And as it is appointed unto men once to die, and after this the judgment”. Wisdom 4:20 tells us: “They shall come with fear at the thought of their sins, and their iniquities shall stand against them to convict them.”

Ash Wednesday is a mandatory day of fasting and abstinence according to the laws of the Church. Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 are obliged to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The Guidelines for fasting are that we are allowed one normal meal and two smaller meals, which when added together are smaller than a normal meal. Snacks are not permitted, but beverages are permitted unless they are filling or constitute a meal like a shake. In addition, all Catholics 14 years old and older must abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and all the Fridays of Lent. Fish and meat products such as milk or eggs are permitted.

Fasting and abstinence, like the Lenten sacrifices that we are called to do help us order our priorities toward God. We give up things that we like so that we can remember what is truly important: God. Fasting and abstinence also help us build our resolve against sin by practicing deprivation of things that we enjoy. By saying no to meat or regulating our diet, we help control our urges, strengthening our will.

Finally, Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent. During this season, we keep our sins always in mind, remembering the tremendous cost of our rejection of God through these sins. We look ahead to Good Friday and the passion of Our Lord, which was brought about by the sins of the word, including our own. Jesus was tortured and killed because of our sinfulness. This should cause us to make a firm resolution to avoid sin.