At Mass last Sunday our pastor, Fr. Kevin Estabrook, made the congregation aware of the fact that this year’s distribution of ashes would be different than in the past. Due to health concerns, ashes will not be imprinted on the forehead in the sign of a cross accompanied by one of the usual formulas like “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Instead, the formula will be spoken to the whole congregation prior to the individual reception of ashes, which will then be sprinkled on the crown of the head, in silence.
This “new” process seems strange to those of us who live in the United States, but it is actually the general norm at the Vatican and throughout almost all of the Catholic world.
Not many lands have the tradition of placing ashes on the forehead, and thus only in these few countries is there the symbolism that we associate with and find so much a part of the Ash Wednesday experience. This year we will lose the overt proclamation of our sinfulness, and we will not stand out in the crowd while in line at the supermarket or at the bank. But hopefully we will gain an understanding of the link between the sprinkling of water on our heads at baptism and the sprinkling of ashes on our heads as we begin this penitential season.
The sacrament of baptism not only removes Original Sin, but it imparts the supernatural graces associated with the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. The ashes, when sprinkled on the crown of the head, are meant to remind us of our baptism while also calling us to the penitential practices traditionally associated with Lent – fasting, prayer, and almsgiving.
Almost as if to remind each of us that this link is an essential aspect of our Lenten journey, Pope Francis bundles them together in his Ash Wednesday message to the faithful. As brief as this statement is, it is filled with deep insights into both the Lenten journey as well as the Christian vocation to imitate our Lord.
“Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem.” These words of Jesus provide the thematic glue for the Holy Father’s Lenten message, and they point directly to the fulfillment of the mission of the Messiah. The words of Francis make us aware that the “we” to whom Jesus speaks includes us and not just the Twelve. Jerusalem is the place where Lent culminates and then blossoms forth into Easter and the season of rejoicing, but we must first walk the path with Jesus and prove ourselves worthy of our joy.
In his message, Francis shows that this journey to Jerusalem is a microcosm of the life of a Christian. To follow Jesus, no matter what the season, is to live a life that unites faith with fasting, hope with prayer, and love with almsgiving. The call to “renew our faith, draw from the “living water” of hope, and receive with open hearts the love of God, who makes us brothers and sisters in Christ” is universal and at the root of all Christian spirituality.
The Holy Father then links these theological virtues with our Lenten practices when he states that, “The path of poverty and self-denial (fasting), concern and loving care for the poor (almsgiving), and childlike dialogue with the Father (prayer) make it possible for us to live lives of sincere faith, living hope and effective charity.”
This Lenten message relies heavily on themes already highlighted in the encyclical Fratelli Tutti: on a Christ-like focus on others rather than ourselves, on bringing kindness and comfort to those in need, and on directing our energies at true human and cultural development. During Lent our fasting embodies the other-centered essence of our faith; our prayer inspires us to bring hope to those in despair; and our almsgiving allows us to share with our brothers and sisters in need.
As he concludes his remarks, Francis fittingly calls upon the Blessed Virgin to sustain us, especially this Lent. In her we find not only the perfect Mother for all of us, brothers and sisters in Christ, but also the perfect example of what it is to go up to Jerusalem and be “ever faithful at the foot of the Cross.”
On Wednesday, Saint Ignatius will be streaming two Ash Wednesday prayer services, at 9:30 a.m. and 1:20 p.m., on the SIBN. Additionally, the traditional Ash Wednesday Evening of Reflection will be streamed live at 7 p.m. Click HERE to find all upcoming broadcasts.