The word "Lent" often draws thoughts of "giving something up" for a period of time. But what is the true meaning behind the 40-day season? At the heart of the Lenten Season lies preparation for Baptism and a renewal of baptismal commitment. As the candidates for Baptism enter their final period of preparation for Baptism, the rest of the Church accompanies them on their journey and together, we prepare to renew our baptismal vows at Easter. Lent then, is truly baptismal, whether for one who is entering the Church for the first time, or for someone seeking to grow closer to Christ and renew their Baptismal promises.
So why do people fast during Lent? Lent is about conversion, turning our lives more completely over to Christ and His way of life. Lent is a 40-day season. Let's take a look at where the number forty appears in the Bible:
-Noah waited 40 days before opening a window on the ark and releasing a dove. (Genesis 8:6)
-Moses fasted on a mountain 40 days and returned with the Ten Commandments. (Exodus 34:28-29)
-The Israelites spent 40 years in the wilderness searching for the Promised Land. (Exodus 16:35)
-Goliath taunted the Israelite army for 40 days before being defeated by David. (1 Samuel 17:16)
-Jonah warned the city of Nineveh that they had 40 days until God would overthrow the city. Within those 40 days the people repented and God spared the city. (Jonah 3:4)
-Jesus fasted in the wilderness for 40 days enduring the temptations of the devil. (Matthew 4:1-2)
-After Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection He appeared to the disciples for 40 days and then joined His Father in Heaven. (Acts 1:3)
As you can see, the number forty has long been biblically recognized as an important number, one often associated with a period of trial followed by grace and renewal. This is exactly how we view Lent. A time of preparation followed by renewal of spirit. In order to grow spiritually, we must turn away from sin. The goal is not to abstain from sin for the duration of Lent but to root sin out of our lives forever. Conversion means leaving behind an old way of living and acting in order to embrace new life in Christ. Fasting is a way to develop self-control and to gain the ability to say "no" to the small things we enjoy, even if they are ultimately good, so that you can say "no" to the things that draw us into sin. Fasting should also be connected to our concern for those who are forced to fast by poverty or are in need for any reason. Thus, fasting is linked to living out our baptismal promises. By our Baptism, we are charged with the responsibility of showing Christ's love to the world, especially those in need. When human suffering is accepted and offered up in union with the Passion of Jesus, we believe that our suffering can be united to that of Christ and so in union with His Passion. Fasting can help us realize the suffering that so many people in our world experience every day, and it should lead us to greater efforts to alleviate that suffering. (This recognition of suffering will become a strong reality as I set off for a FOCUS Missions trip to Nicaragua with several students and fellow missionaries in just a few days! Pray for us!)
But why put ashes on our foreheads? The ashes for Ash Wednesday are made from blessed palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday. The ashes are sprinkled with Holy Water and incensed before distribution. Ashes are applied to our forehead in the sign of the cross as the words, "Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return" or "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel" are spoken to us. The words "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return" are from scripture. They occur after The Fall when God is explaining to Adam one of the main consequences of Original Sin -- separation from God and mortality. God reminds Adam that his body is dust, and after the fall, to dust it shall return. Ash Wednesday takes us back to that moment. We are standing in the Garden with Adam and Eve. We are dust and to dust we shall return. There is a great schism between God and us, and how can that relationship be repaired? Jesus' death and resurrection reconciles us with God, and is precisely the focal point of Lent -- Easter. We look forward with hope to the celebration of Easter. We remember that we are nothing but dust if we do not have Easter; it is only Jesus' resurrection that gives us hope that we too shall be risen from the dust. When we hear the words, "you are dust and to dust you shall return" it should call to mind the spirit of Lent, reminding us that not only are our bodies dust, but so are all of the things of this world. All money, possessions, and earthly accomplishments are not important in themselves. They are all fleeting. They are all, ultimately, dust. Lent is a time to re-evaluate our lives. Yes, we are dust. Do we spend our lives chasing more dust? Or are we chasing the one thing that can truly make an eternal difference? Are we chasing the one Being who can breathe life into dust? For a people of dust, this is our only hope. Receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday symbolizes our mortality as well as our need for ongoing repentance. It is a reminder that this life is short and merely a foreshadowing of what we shall become through the redemption of Jesus Christ on the cross. We look forward to when we are raised from the dust, in resurrected bodies like His own and called to the eternal communion of heaven.