Lent's true goal

by Jeff Hedglen

North Texas Catholic

3/15/2016

A fragment of a stone mosaic of Jesus Christ's resurrection. (shutterstock.com)

The use of ashes as a symbol of repentance goes back to the Old Testament. It is even mentioned in Matthew and Luke. We also see ashes as a sign of penance in the writings of Tertullian in the second century.  Down through the ages and still today we wear ashes to show that we are mortal beings who began as dust and we shall return to dust.

Reflection on this image of returning to dust can lead us to realize that we are not our own ultimate end. Our sinfulness brings a spiritual death and a separation from God. This awakens in us a longing for reconciliation with God, and the pathway to this is repentance. Thus ashes, a symbol of our physical death become the object that marks the beginning of our Lenten journey to the cross of our salvation.

It is important to remember that an outward symbol like ashes in and of itself is not the focus of this spiritual practice. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says in Paragraph 1430:

Jesus’ call to conversion and penance, like that of the prophets before him, does not aim first at outward works, “sackcloth and ashes,” fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion. Without this, such penances remain sterile and false; however, interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures, and works of penance.

In other words the chief goal of all of our spiritual practices is deeper conversion, if this is not the aim then our practices are “sterile and false”. We employ signs like ashes to express outwardly what is happening internally.

Every year we begin our 40-day journey to the celebration of the Pascal Mystery by having our foreheads marked with ashes. Of our own volition we process to the foot of the altar and receive our marching orders for Lent: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”

The cross of ash on our forehead is but one of two crosses that serve as ritual bookends for this season of the Church year. Veneration of the Cross on Good Friday completes the set. We are marked with the symbol of repentance and then we embrace the object that redeems us.

One without the other has less meaning. If we focus on our need to repent without embracing the cross, we are left in our sin. If we cling to the cross with no acknowledgment of our need to repent, then we come empty- handed to the mercy seat.

Yet when we reflect deeply on our sinfulness and our need for repentance and we come to the foot of the cross with a contrite heart, laying the burden of our sin at the feet of Jesus, we encounter a God who is not only rich in mercy, but is exceedingly generous in offering mercy to all who call upon Him.

The goal of all of our external Lenten practices is to interiorly prepare us to walk the way of suffering with Jesus on Good Friday, uniting all our sufferings, hurts, and heartaches with his passion so they too can be redeemed.

The external cross of ash points to the actual cross of salvation, which is the doorway we must pass through to receive the power of the Resurrection. All the fasting, prayer, and almsgiving of Lent is for naught if it culminates in the Good Friday observance and stops there. As St. Paul says: “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17).

As vital as our Lenten practices are along with the observances of Holy Week, the Resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday is the culmination of all we do as Christians and in a particular way, the turning point of all humanity.  For as St. Paul continues: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all” (1 Corinthians 15:19).

But, praise God that Good Friday is not a dead-end, but instead, a grand opening! For with his death AND resurrection Jesus opens the chains of sin that bind us all and He opens the gates to heaven for all who surrender to his grace and mercy.

So in this Jubilee Year of Mercy let us dive deep into our practices this Lent. Make a heartfelt confession, perform meaningful fasts from food and other physical things, and dive down into the mystery of the God-Man Jesus who suffers and died for you. The more profound your Lent, the more glory-filled will be your Easter celebration.

The use of ashes as a symbol of repentance goes back to the Old Testament. It is even mentioned in Matthew and Luke. We also see ashes as a sign of penance in the writings of Tertullian in the second century.  Down through the ages and still today we wear ashes to show that we are mortal beings who began as dust and we shall return to dust.

Published