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    One way to prepare ourselves for Lent is to better understand the day that starts it all: Ash Wednesday.

    The words spoken while ashes are pressed on our foreheads ignite us like the opening gun at a race. We're off. A pilgrimage has begun.

    Ash Wednesday is a rally of sorts, to give people encouragement and motivation.


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    Ash Wednesday: Rituals and symbols

    By Paul Senz

    Catholic News Service

    Our society is not one that readily embraces the idea of sacrifice. There is little recognition of the profound benefits of self-denial and of giving completely of oneself to others -- and to God.

    All the more reason, then, for us as Catholics to actively live out the ideals of the penitential season of Lent. One way to prepare ourselves is to better understand the roots and symbolism of the season and the day that starts it all: Ash Wednesday.

    The name of Lent comes for the Old English word for spring. In most other languages, the name of this season is derived from the Latin term "quadragesima," or 40 days.

    The length of the season is one of its most symbolically important aspects, putting us in continuity with figures throughout salvation history who experienced penitential periods of 40 days. Biblically, the number 40 is associated with discipline, preparation and asceticism.

    During the great flood, it rained for 40 days and 40 nights (Gn 7:12) and after the waters had been receding for some time, "at the end of 40 days" Noah sent a raven out to test the waters (Gn 8:6-7).

    Moses was on the mountain with God for 40 days (Ex 24:18, 34:28). Elijah traveled for 40 days before reaching the cave where he had his vision (1 Kgs 19:8). Nineveh was given 40 days to repent (Jon 3:4).

    And, most directly related to our liturgical celebration of Lent, Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness fasting and praying before beginning his public ministry (Mt 4:2).

    The Catechism of the Catholic Church sums up the season of Lent: "By the solemn 40 days of Lent the church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert" (No. 540).

    This union comes not simply from the length of the season; it is from the three pillars of Lent -- praying, fasting and almsgiving -- by which we live out the example set by Jesus and prepare ourselves to celebrate the paschal mystery of his death and resurrection.

    Ash Wednesday is one day in particular in which we unite ourselves to the ascetic fasting of Jesus Christ. Appropriately, as it is the beginning of the season, Ash Wednesday is a sort of Lent-in-microcosm.

    What significance do the ashes themselves hold? Why do we engage in this ritual each year, and what does it have to do with Lent?

    There are two primary symbols with which we often associate the ashes. First, in the Bible a mark on the forehead is something that signifies ownership. This tradition was retained in the early church after the resurrection, as the early Christians would make the sign of the cross with their thumbs on their foreheads, indicating their complete gift of self to Jesus Christ.

    Similarly, the forehead is marked with the sign of the cross at baptism, in confirmation and at every Mass prior to the proclamation of the Gospel. Signing the forehead with ashes is one more reiteration of this ownership.

    Second, and perhaps more widely recognized, ashes are biblically a sign of mourning and penance, as well as death. There are countless scriptural examples wherein someone will express their penitence and seek forgiveness by covering themselves in sackcloth and ashes.

    Eusebius of Caesarea (circa 260-339), in his "Ecclesiastical History," tells of an apostate named Natalis who came to Pope Zephyrinus seeking the pope's forgiveness -- clothed in sackcloth and ashes.

    Ashes were also sprinkled on the forehead of one who was to do public penance, as they left confession. This outward sign of an inward reality increased in prominence as time went on.

    Reflect for a moment on the words used by the minister when the ashes are administered: "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

    The first part recalls what God said to Adam when he and Eve were being expelled from the garden (Gn 3:19), and Abraham's declaration: "I am only dust and ashes" (Gn 18:27). It is a profound reminder of the reality of death. This phrase is a strong reminder of our mortality, a reminder that the things of this world are fleeting, and that we are ultimately meant for the kingdom of God.

    According to Father William Saunders, former professor at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria, Virginia, this ritual is one that dates back at least to the eighth century, in the earliest extant editions of the Gregorian Sacramentary, a collection of prayers and other liturgical texts.

    Later, Father Saunders notes, around the year 1000,an Anglo-Saxon priest wrote of repentance being displayed by sackcloth and ashes, and the priest would say, "Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast."

    Lent is not merely a preparation for Easter. On Ash Wednesday, we sign ourselves as disciples of Jesus Christ, and we strive to live the following 40 days so that the world knows we are Christians.

    (Senz is a freelance writer living in Oregon with his family.)


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    Lent as a pilgrimage

    By Effie Caldarola

    Catholic News Service

    When the comedian Stephen Colbert appeared, one Ash Wednesday, on his late-night television show with ashes marking his forehead, I felt a sense of communion.

    He's one of my tribe, I thought. Colbert is a well-known Catholic. He even invited Jesuit Father James Martin to serve as the unofficial "chaplain" to his Comedy Central program. 

    But you don't have to be a celebrity to evince solidarity on Ash Wednesday. Someone at the desk next to yours, perhaps, or the clerk in the supermarket line, each bearing the telltale sign of camaraderie that announces each as a fellow pilgrim taking those first tentative steps on a journey we share.

    Maybe that's why I love Ash Wednesday, and I'm not alone. Churches are absolutely packed on Ash Wednesday. It's always been a deep puzzlement to me that churches are actually more crowded on Ash Wednesday than they are for the services of the Easter triduum.

    To me, there are no more stirring liturgies than these three, which celebrate the central mystery of our salvation. And yet, for sheer devotion, nothing draws people in like Ash Wednesday.

    Someone suggested once that Catholics like Ash Wednesday because they "get" something at Mass -- a telltale smudge that proclaims their faith.

    But every Mass offers us the ultimate "get" -- the Eucharist. Although it's not something we tangibly show the world, its abundant grace should triumph over a mere splotch that someone -- not one of your tribe -- will inevitably point to during the day and say helpfully, "You have some dirt on your forehead."

    Here's my theory on Ash Wednesday, and here's why I value the day.

    I see Ash Wednesday as the beginning of a pilgrimage, my personal journey, but one I share liturgically and spiritually with more than a billion worldwide pilgrims. I've laced up my hiking boots, I've made my resolutions, I have my hope of making it to the finish line. And there is a finish line, folks. Hey, this is a mere 40 days, doable and measurable.

    That smudge on my forehead is like that first bit of dust and mud on my hiking boots. I'm on the way.

    When I was a child, the words I heard were bleak -- "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." Perhaps thinking we need a little more encouragement than that, the church now offers an alternative, "Repent, and believe in the Gospel."

    Either way, those words ignite us like the opening gun at a race. We're off. A pilgrimage has begun.

    And we all begin it with conviction. But pilgrimages are tough. Ask those who have walked the Camino de Santiago, that famous Christian trek made famous in the movie "The Way." It's a journey full of blisters, fatigue, setbacks and sometimes failure. Sometimes people drop out along the way, and those that make it to the end may look back ruefully on a difficult journey.

    So it is, often, with Lent. The good intentions and firm resolutions of Ash Wednesday clash with our busy lives and our imperfections. No one makes a perfect Lent, whatever that means. No one reaches some kind of spiritual peak every step of this journey.

    Maybe that's why some drop out along the path. We set our goals very high, forgetting that Jesus is interested in our weakness and our need, not just our supposed strengths and victories.

    So on Ash Wednesday, I'll have a plan. How will I grow closer to Jesus during Lent? That's the only question. I will try to have a modest, doable goal for each of the three pillars of Lent -- prayer, penance, almsgiving. Perhaps I'll keep a little journal to reflect my progress. If I slip up -- and we all will -- I'll begin again.

    I will prepare to have my heart cracked open -- and prepare for a blister or two along the way.

    (Caldarola is a freelance writer and a columnist for Catholic News Service.)


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    The rallying cry

    By Father Herb Weber

    Catholic News Service

    I confess that after more than four decades as a parish priest, I am still moved by the Scripture readings of Ash Wednesday. That is true even if there may seem to be contrasting expectations.

    For example, in the first reading from Joel (2:12-18), the prophet uses words like "Blow a trumpet ... call an assembly." At the same time, in the Gospel passage from Matthew (6:1-6, 16-18) used at the same Mass we hear Jesus say, "When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you."

    Likewise, when it comes to fasting, Jesus calls people to "anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting." At the same time, we place dark ashes on the foreheads of adults and children alike as a sign of their repentance.

    Finally, people gather in great numbers to begin a holy 40-day season of prayer and renewal. Yet we are reminded that "when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret."

    Are we ignoring Jesus' challenges to attend to the inner life of the soul without being showy? A closer look at both readings will ease some of the apparent conflict.

    It is very tempting for me to spend the entire Ash Wednesday homily preaching on Matthew's passage about almsgiving, prayer and fasting. After all, they summarize the traditional ways to seek a change of heart and a renewal of spirit through repentance.

    Those three Lenten observances are means to some end, not the end themselves. That is why it is necessary to focus on the prophet Joel. Joel's words make up the "what" of the message; Matthew's words are the "how."

    What Joel calls people to is a major renewal of heart and spirit. His words are really a rallying cry. Thus the blowing of the trumpet is to awaken people to the need to universally and collectively change their lives.

    Many people implicitly understand that Ash Wednesday is a rally of sorts. What will follow the next 39 days is equally important, but people need to be given encouragement and motivation. That also explains why gathering as a group and not just praying alone is important. We gather with fellow sinners admitting our sinfulness and looking to God's mercy.

    In recent years, I have begun washing off the ashes on my forehead shortly after each Mass. I do this in the spirit of Matthew's Gospel reading. As I wash, I often pray that my heart will wear this sign of repentance for the next six weeks.

    At the same time, I know that people need visible and exterior signs, so if the ashes are worn for that day alone, the symbol can be seen, not unlike wearing a cross around one's neck, as a sign of going beyond the immediate pleasures and gratification of this world.

    Again this year we will rally for the beginning of Lent with the Scriptures reminding us of the call to true renewal.

    (Father Weber is the founding pastor of St. John XXIII Parish in Perrysburg, Ohio.)


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    Many Catholic organizations and ministries offer daily or weekly Lenten reflections for free. Here are a few options to consider incorporating into your Lenten resolutions this year:

    -- Catholic Relief Services offers CRS Rice Bowl reflections weekly during Lent:

    -- "Living Lent Daily" sends a daily email based on the day's scriptural readings:

    -- "Praying Lent" is an online ministry of Creighton University featuring audio conversations and daily prayers for Lent:

    -- Bishop Robert Barron's "Word on Fire" ministry sends daily Lenten reflections in English or Spanish:

    -- "Best Lent Ever" is a program offering a daily video message featuring Matthew Kelly of Dynamic Catholic:

    -- The Word Among Us website has a daily meditation based on one reading from the daily readings at Mass:


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