This week the Church celebrates Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten Season and a time for spiritual renewal. Ash Wednesday is an ancient ritual of the Catholic Church reaching back as far as the 8th Century. The marking on the forehead with ash and the words "turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel” remind us all of need to pause and consider how we are responding to Christ’s call to mission.
Ash Wednesday is about making choices
We’ve all seen the aftermath of bushfire – scarred landscapes, blackened trees, homes dissolved into barely recognisable piles of rubble and ash. Fire cleanses and alters. It has been an integral part of religious ritual from ancient times, signifying warmth and community as well as vengeance and death. In some traditional Aboriginal societies, fire was seen as possessing healing qualities; smoke was a cleansing agent and ash was rubbed on wounds and injuries to soothe and speed recovery.
In the Christian tradition fire is synonymous with the Holy Spirit, appearing at the birth of the Church at Pentecost like “tongues as of fire” (Acts 2:3) and setting apart those called to follow Jesus with baptism “… with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3: 11-12). To be baptised with fire is a very powerful concept, suggesting not just purification but also passion, fervour and enthusiasm. How different would the world be if all of us were “on fire” with the Gospel of Christ? Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, how can we be more conscious of our hearts burning within? How much more exuberant would be our Easter celebrations if we spent the Lenten season stoking up this fire?
So while the ashes are an ancient symbol of physical death, used many times in the scriptures to indicate mourning, repentance and grief, they are also an imperative for change. They remind Christians of the need for renewal and rebirth. Ash Wednesday is a time for all of us to stop and assess how we are going on our journey with God. Being marked with the ashes is a new beginning, a conscious choice to reassess, to refocus, to re-energise … to change.
Instead of giving up chocolate (good for the health but fairly benign spiritually) use this Lenten Season to reflect on these questions