Ash Wednesday 2014

In a few moments' time, ashes will be blessed and place on our heads as a sign of repentance and conversion and as a pledge of the acts of penance we will practise this year. It's the traditional way in which we begin Lent in the Western Church. The prayer of blessing takes its theme from those well-known words from the book of the Prophet Ezequiel, "Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live?" (Ez. 18:23) God does not desire the death of the wicked, but that we repent and live. It's strange and upsetting how some Christians seem to hate sinners, when God loves them, and fail to recognise that we are all sinners in one way or another. In fact, as St John teaches us in the words of Jesus, "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life." (Jn 3:16) Lent, then, is a time, "a favourable time", for us to take stock of our sinfulness and, through God's grace and mercy, find that healing remedy that will bring us to new life in Christ as we prepare for Easter and the celebration of the Paschal Mystery of our salvation.

The prayer also speaks of "a steadfast observance of Lent". We probably don't need reminding that we often give up too easily on our Lenten observances, that it doesn't take long before we forget what we had proposed doing. That's because we tend to think in a negative way about what we need to give up rather than positively about what we could take on. In this the advice of St Bernard is helpful. He writes, " Sorrow for sin is indeed necessary, but it should not involve endless self-preoccupation. You should dwell also on the glad remembrance of the loving kindness of God." Lent is not only a time to say sorry, above all it is a time to give thanks to God for his mercy and love. We should also be careful as to what we intend doing or giving up. On the First Sunday of Lent, St Jerome had this to say to his congregation, "If you have fasted for two days, do not for this reason think yourself better than those who have not. You fast and perhaps become angry; another eats, but perhaps exercises kindness." We all need to check our passions, indeed keep them in check, and Lent is a good time to begin again. Fasting in the Christian tradition, of course, was meant to do just that. The purpose of fasting was not to become obsessive about food, even less about losing weight, but rather it is a control over our wayward passions and vices, pride, envy, wrath, sloth, greed, gluttony and lust. It should encourage in us the God-like virtues that are their opposite. Fasting also goes hand in hand with almsgiving and prayer.

As we begin Lent we ask God to pardon our sins and grant us newness of life, to recreate his image within us that we may grow into the likeness of Christ, his Risen Son. I wish you all a happy and holy Lent. May the good Lord be pleased to bless us all with the abundance of his grace. Amen.