Today, Ash Wednesday, nearly as many Roman Catholics will turn up for Mass as turn up on Christmas. Of course, in return for their effort each one, at least in the U.S., will receive a black smudge of palm ashes on her/his forehead. The popularity of Ash Wednesday is difficult for me to fathom, especially given that the number of people who come to Mass on Ash Wednesday is likely greater than those who turn up on Easter. Speaking only for myself, if I did not believe Christ rose from the dead I sure as hell would not participate in Ash Wednesday! I'd just keep reading Beckett, who at least does some pointing beyond.
I find it interesting that Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation. Hence, there is no requirement to attend Mass on pain of sin. Each Roman Catholic between the ages of 14-60 is obligated to fast. Fasting means no eating the meat of warm-blooded animals and, if you eat, what you ingest over the course of the entire day should not amount to more than one small meal. I know, to state things that way is to run the risk of taking a legalistic approach. But having some guidance is most useful. Fasting is the lost spiritual discipline. In a society of plenty, it is difficult to fast, to voluntarily go without food. The link between fasting and alms-giving is also something that has faded. The link between the two is quite simple: I go without and give what I go without to someone in need. This is faith in action. Another word for faith in action is love.
I think another thing that bears noting is that Lent is not a time for self-improvement. The disciplines of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving are focused on more intensely so that our love of God and neighbor, by the grace of God, might increase. Dorothy Day once challengingly averred something along these lines: I only love God as much as I love the person who I love the least. When it comes to focusing on love, true love, Ash Wednesday puts the comparatively shallow Hallmark holiday of Valentine's Day to shame. For Christians, it is the Cross, not a heart, that is the sign of enduring love. As St. Gianna Molla observed: "Love and sacrifice are closely linked, like the sun and the light. We cannot love without suffering and we cannot suffer without love."
Each Lent there is a quote by James Kushiner to which I turn. I turn to it because I think it gets the spiritual life just right: "A discipline won't bring you closer to God. Only God can bring you closer to Himself. What the discipline is meant to do is to help you get yourself, your ego, out of the way so you are open to his grace."
Another insight I find useful each Lent was provided by theologian Owen Cummings in an article he wrote about Lent that appeared in the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament's U.S. publication Emmanuel quite a few years ago:
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 areThe quote is from a sermon by the late Passionist priest, Fr. Harry Williams.
Lent is not a time to inflict the wrath of God upon yourself. In the first instance, God has no wrath toward you, only love. Lent, which is derived from an Old English word, means springtime. Springtime, of course, is that time when things that appeared to be dead come back to life. Christ, the Good Shepherd, came so that you and I might have life and it more abundantly (John 10:10). An abundant life is a self-sacrificing life.
Lent is a time that we prepare to renew our baptismal covenant with God at the great Paschal Vigil. I think the introduction to the Intercessions for Ash Wednesday Morning Prayer states this beautifully:
Today God our Father brings us to the beginning of Lent. We pray that in this time of salvation he will fill us with the Holy Spirit, purify our hearts, and strengthen us in loveI pray each one of you has a blessed Lent.