Monday, February 15, 2021
Fr. Eduardo Barrios, SJ
Secularizing elements put pressure on believers, especially Christians, to live their faith as privately as possible. This explains why, in certain countries, such as the USA, there have been bans against public monuments of the Ten Commandments and the birth of Jesus.
Believers in general, like meek lambs, tend to submit to such demands, and hide their faith. But there is one day of the year, a Wednesday, when they do bear witness to their faith. On Feb. 17, many parishioners will go to the churches to receive ashes. Afterwards, those people will be seen in the streets, stores and pews prominently displaying that they received the penitential sign of ashes in their Catholic churches. It is a public witness of faith that you don't see every day.
The Liturgy of Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the penitential season of preparation for the greatest celebration of the Christian calendar, Easter.
The use of ashes as a symbol of repentance dates back to the earliest biblical times. Let us read, for example, Jonah 3:6: "When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes."
The Christian Church has retained symbols from the Old Testament, such as this one of applying ashes as an expression of penance. During the first centuries of the Christian era, public sinners — that is, those who had fallen into grave sins such as adultery, apostasy and homicide — sat at the door of the church dressed in sackcloth and covered with ashes awaiting absolution.
Over time the practice of public penance declined, and from the eighth century onwards the entire community received the mark of ashes. After all, there is no one who is not a sinner, although by God's mercy not everyone commits mortal sins.
Among the Christian churches, the Catholic Church is the most visual, the one with the most magnificent liturgy, so rich in gestures, rites, songs and symbols. All this has many positive aspects, because the senses are the best way to reach the mind and the heart.
But there is the danger of ritualism, of attributing magical value to sacred signs. That is why the Church insists that ashes be imposed only on those who participate in the previous prayers and listen to the Liturgy of the Word, because the texts help to interiorize the penitential message of which the ashes are only a sign.
When receiving the ashes, parishioners are reminded of their mortal condition with words inspired by Genesis: "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return". They can also be encouraged with the words of Jesus himself: "Repent and believe in the Gospel".
The faithful are also reminded that Ash Wednesday is the only day of the year, together with Good Friday, when fasting is observed in addition to abstinence. This means renouncing meat, while fish, eggs, nuts, cheese and vegetarian dishes are allowed. The fast is observed by those over 14 years old on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays of Lent. The fast consists of one full meal and two light meals. This penance is only obligatory for Catholics over the age of 18 and under the age of 59.
As in so many things, fasting requires sincerity. Whoever eats only one Pantagruelian meal this Wednesday has not done penance.