As we begin the Lenten season, we are marked with ashes for two primary reasons:
First, they are a reminder of our mortality. The words often spoken to us as we receive ashes are, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Remembering the mortality of our earthly bodies and corporeal life reminds us of the immortality of our souls, the new life promised to us in the resurrection of Christ.
Second, ashes are a sign of unity. The Lenten discipline is carried out by individuals within a community of Christian faithful. Seeing another person marked with ashes at the beginning of Lent reminds us of our communion with one another.
It is worthy of note that Ash Wednesday is not of holy day of obligation in the Catholic Church. This means we are not required by Church doctrine or canon law to receive ashes.
Lent is a time of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving in preparation for the passion and resurrection of Christ. So, when we think of how to observe Lent, we should think of how to best prepare ourselves for the Paschal Mystery.
Prayer brings us closer to God and strengthens our relationship with Him. Increasing prayer during Lent can be a practice that stays long after Easter. This doesn’t mean we have to spend hours on our knees at an adoration chapel (though it would be nice to have such an opportunity). Perhaps one decade of a rosary every morning on the way to work, or Evening Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours would be a suitable step up for the Lenten season. Daily Mass is an excellent way to improve prayer life, too, if schedule allows.
Fasting is an exercise that empties us of worldly things so we may fill ourselves with Christ upon His resurrection. It is also a practice of discipline, the root word of “disciple.” Turning away from a beloved food or habit gives us time to focus on prayer and creates a longing which we can fill with Christ’s love. As a bonus, I tend to lose a few pounds every Lent.
Finally, alms-giving is a Lenten practice of doing for others by sharing our time, talent, and/or treasure. This is a time to donate clothing, food, money to the poor. Volunteering to work with children, the homeless, the community is a way to follow the example of Christ and better prepare us for His coming.
As we contemplate our Lenten practices, let us reflect upon the Holy Gospel according to Matthew, which provides invaluable perspective on Lenten discipline.
Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father. When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your alms giving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you. In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to others to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.
(Matthew 6:1-8, 16-18 NAB)
Peace and all good things.