Ash Wednesday, and Lent

By Chris Sparks

By the sweat of your brow
    you shall eat bread,
Until you return to the ground,
    from which you were taken;
For you are dust,
    and to dust you shall return. (Gen 3:19)

Forty days to a new you!

But Lent is more than just a self-improvement program.

Forty days to a new — creation! To a new everything!

Setting out from dust and ashes, we arrive at Good Friday, when the dust and ashes in which the Son of God was incarnate, that Body of His, dies and is returned to dust and ashes, to the tomb. And yet that’s not the end of His story, nor is it the end of history, for on Easter Sunday, the first day of the new creation, Jesus Christ will rise from the dead.


Dust and ashes are transformed and become glorious, imperishable, sharing in the divine life and love in a way that makes death different for everyone else forevermore. "He has bestowed on us the precious and very great promises, so that through them you may come to share in the divine nature, after escaping from the corruption that is in the world because of evil desire" (see 2 Pet 1:4). Death is no longer the end; instead, eternal life is the goal.

But to get there, we must first descend from the heights of our pride, sin, and every illusion. We must embrace the cross as Jesus did, and bear it on the way to Golgotha with Him, there to join Him in putting an end to the world, the flesh, and the devil’s kingdom.

We are invited to a hard, stark realism in Lent, to a confrontation with how far we’ve fallen, and how much further we have to descend in humility and obedience until we hang crucified from the cross alongside the Lord, and so will rise with Him again on Easter.

How do we do that? The key tools are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, but they must be inspired by merciful love, obedience, and generosity. Saint Paul, after all, famously said, “If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor 13:1-3).

And Jesus taught St. Faustina an important lesson about obedience:

At that very moment I saw Jesus standing at the kitchen door, and I said to Him, “You commanded me to ask for these mortifications, but Mother Superior will not permit them.” Jesus said, “I was here during your conversation with the Superior and know everything. I don’t demand mortification from you, but obedience. By obedience you give great glory to Me and gain merit for yourself.” (Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, 28)

So prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are all essential tools of the Christian life, but they must be used in accordance with true love of God and neighbor. That is, we must be governed by the duties of our state in life, and by true prudence. One saying I’ve heard before sums it up nicely: Your Lenten penance shouldn’t be penitential for those around you! That is, if your prayers, your fasting, or your almsgiving are imposing a burden on others as well as yourself, it’s time to rethink them. Your mortification shouldn’t be causing your neighbors to suffer.

Let merciful love, obedience, and generosity be your guides. Love the Lord and your neighbor more than yourself, but do prudently, virtuously love all three.

Pray for me that I may practice what I preach. I’ll pray for you.

Chris Sparks serves as senior book editor for the Marian Fathers. He is the author of the Marian Press book How Can You Still Be Catholic? 50 Answers to a Good Question.

Photo by Kamil Szumotalski on Unsplash.


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