Lent is a 40 day liturgical season during which we prepare for Easter. Stated simply, Lent is a time of baptismal renewal. In baptism we died, were buried, and rose with Christ. If Easter is resurrection and Ash Wednesday is the day we face our mortality (a clean way of saying it is the day we remember that some day we are all going to die), then Lent can be fruitfully conceived as a time of burial, the time between dying and rising. When Roman Catholics receive ashes they hear either the traditional words- "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return," or the words "Repent and believe the Gospel." In either case, the person receiving ashes is invited to prepare for what is ultimate, which means distinguishing what is ultimate from what is provisional, temporary, and fleeting. Understood in this way, Lent takes on an eschatological dimension. Our intensified practice of the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving are an invitation to make God's reign a present reality as we await its final fulfillment.
While Lent has everything to do with penance, it has nothing to do with punishment. Penance starts inward and moves outward. Punishment comes from outside of us, causes fear and usually resentment. In an article on Lent written quite a few years ago, Owen Cummings cited an Ash Wednesday sermon delivered by Passionist Fr. Harry Williams that bluntly tells us what Lent is not about:
It is a pity that we think of Lent as a time when we try to make ourselves uncomfortable in some fiddling but irritating way. And it’s more than a pity, it’s a tragic disaster, that we also think of it as a time to indulge in the secret and destructive pleasure of doing a good orthodox grovel to a pseudo-Lord, the Pharisee in each of us we call God and who despises the rest of what we areFar from despising you, God loves you. God's love for you is never in question. I think a fruitful Lenten question is, "How much do I love God?" This question is answered, at least in part, by how well I love my neighbor. To repent means to have a change of mind, a change of heart. Therefore, we must begin with the question, "In order love God and neighbor the way I want to, what in me must change?" I would suggest that for many of us, certainly myself, the biggest change is accepting the incomprehensible love the Father has given in his Son. Such acceptance is, of course, the work of their Spirit. Anyone who comes to know and accept God's love changes.
Ash Wednesday has to be right up there with Christmas when it comes to a day when a lot of people flock to Church. Based on my own experience, I'd go so far as to assert that, at least in many places, more people come to Church on Ash Wednesday than on Easter. This is not to castigate people. I am glad they are there on Ash Wednesday, but I'd also love for them to come on Easter. Why celebrate dying but not rising? I often surprise people by stating what is true: for Roman Catholics, Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation. We are obligated to fast, but not go to Mass let alone to receive ashes.
When it comes to receiving ashes, I think all the "Show your ash" Ash Wednesday promos are antithetical to observing Ash Wednesday. I suggest we file the "Hey, look at me and my ashes" phenomenon under misadventures in the New Evangelization. These things are well-intentioned but fall far short of the mark when it comes to entering the holy season of Lent with the proper disposition. The tension generated between the Ash Wednesday Gospel reading and receiving a clearly visible smudge of black palm ashes on my forehead always gives me pause, just as it gives me plenty to ponder concerning the meaning of the practice of receiving ashes as well as the meaning of the season of Lent.
What I have to share about Lent this year is perhaps best summarized by the final verse of my favorite Lenten hymn, "Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days", the words of which tend to vary while retaining essentially the same meaning -
Abide with us, that through this life
of doubts and hope and pain,
an Easter of unending joy
we may at last attain