On Ash Wednesday, our churches were filled to the brim even though it was not a Day of Obligation and I thought to myself… where did all these people come from…don’t see some of them on a regular Sunday? After the homily, all of them, from children to the elderly, some with babies in hand while others in wheel chairs, all queued patiently for the imposition of ashes. I also noticed that there were some who left for home after the ashes were imposed on them. What is so special about these ashes that in my many years as a priest, I have seen people throw a tantrum at the end of Mass that they do not have ashes to take home or on the first Sunday of Lent asking for ashes since they could not attend the Ash Wednesday service. Until now, I have never seen anyone throw a tantrum at not being able to see a priest in the confessional before Mass.

Could these ashes posses some “magical” powers that not having them would tantamount to a mortal sin? I have also heard parents chiding their children when touching or erasing the ashes that have been imposed on the forehead. Some even complain that the minsters who imposed them did not do a good job simply because the ashes aren’t visible or that they did not make sign of the cross with the ashes. Are these the only thoughts that fill the minds of many faithful as we begin the season of Lent?

The words that we possibly heard when the ashes were imposed were either Repent, and believe in the Gospel or Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. The former is a call to repentance and the latter reminds us of our ultimate finality. Whichever we heard, it was surely not some magic spell that was being cast on us together with the ashes.

The imposition of the ashes is only an external sign reminding us on an internal reality that we are called to confront as we begin the season of Lent. The inner reality is the call to penitence which is an essential part of our Christian life. The call to penitence is a time for introspection which many would rather not to do because we would be too ashamed. Instead of taking a deeper look at ourselves, we convince ourselves that being vegetarian, abstaining from alcohol or cigarettes, not engaging in social networks etc for 40 days makes up for the spirit of Lent where the Church calls us to prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Maybe there needs to be more than just those external actions of sacrifice because the ultimate “test” would be to ask ourselves on Easter Sunday whether Lent has brought some change in my life? Have all the fasting and abstaining made me less judgmental and more considerate of my neighbour, more patient and loving with my spouse and children, less gossiping and slandering of my community, more respectful and courteous of the migrants who serve us in restaurants and supermarkets…and the list goes on.

Change happens when we make a conscious effort together with constant reminders… only then does something concrete and profound happen. Change does not happen merely with the imposition of ashes… the “magic” happens when we set our hearts and minds and have the will to change. But the first step is to have the courage to look into and confront our own weaknesses and ways of sin. It is when we take ownership of our sinfulness that we set ourselves on the journey of penitence and change. At the end of this journey, God does not look at how much we have succeeded but rather how much effort have we put into succeeding. In the words of Mother Teresa, “we are called upon not to be successful but to be faithful” to the journey of penitence.