In his 2017 Lenten message, Pope Francis quote Jesus’ words in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew: “Because of the increase in iniquity, the love of many will grow cold” (24:12). As we prepare to observe Ash Wednesday next week on February 14, I invite you to heed Pope Francis’ call to guard against the coldness of heart that results when we succumb to greed, fear, pessimism and self-absorption and answer the invitation of our Holy Father to grow in love and charity during this Lenten season: “Above all, I urge the members of the Church to take up the Lenten journey with enthusiasm, sustained by almsgiving, fasting and prayer. If, at times, the flame of charity seems to die in our hearts, know that this is never the case in the heart of God! He constantly gives us a chance to begin loving anew” (2017 Lenten Message of His Holiness Pope Francis). As this graced time in our liturgical year begins, start your Lenten journey well by attending Mass on Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday Mass times at our parishes are listed at www.archlou.org.
Below is a reflection I wrote in February 2016 about Ash Wednesday for the publication, “Give Us This Day:”
A little smudge of dirt on the forehead has great attraction in our age! Almost magnetically, people come to church on Ash Wednesday. Rivaling November’s Thanksgiving as a feast written in our DNA, this simple ritual calls us from offices, schools and homes. Somehow, that public, smudged sign of the cross on the forehead touches the soul and penetrates the heart, providing something that “connects” with the real lives of folks. Each year, I watch as people flock to the Cathedral for Ash Wednesday. They come so politely, reverently. They don’t shove because they can get something free—they just serenely wait for that sign.
Why the attraction? It may have something to do with wanting a simple life. With souls so hectic these days, we all want to stop and take stock. Ash Wednesday has that attraction. I wonder what happens after people leave with their sign . . . before or while they are washing it off that evening before bed. Maybe they recall the words of Sacred Scripture—that call from the Prophet Joel to return to the Lord with all their hearts. These words are repeated by Jesus taking up the same ancient themes—speaking to their hearts about interior conversion—prayer, fasting from too much food and generosity with others through alms.
My mom always reminded us that going for ashes should not be a badge of our holiness but a way to admit our weakness and our need for God’s grace in our lives. At the end of Ash Wednesday Mass, I remind myself and those present of this advice from my mom.
And with this simple ritual, Lent begins.