Receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday is something that lots of people try not to miss.  After the homily, everyone will queue patiently for the imposition of ashes. Some also want to take the ashes home.  What is so special about these ashes? 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. 

Could these ashes possess some “magical” powers that not having them would be 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. In the past, some even complain that the ministers who imposed them did not do a good job simply because the ashes aren’t visible or that they did not make a sign of the cross with the ashes. Are these the only thoughts that fill the minds of 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 of 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 do because we would be too ashamed. 

Instead of taking a deeper look at ourselves, we sometimes 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, something lasting and not just for 40 days. 

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, we encounter a merciful God, one who looks at how much effort have we put into initiating change in ourselves. In the words of Mother Teresa, “we are called upon not to be successful but to be faithful” – to the journey of penitence. 

So this Lent put in the effort to make changes because the ash in itself cannot make change happen. It is only to remind us we need to change. Have a blessed Lent. 

Ash Wednesday (2 Mar 2022)