Four days with a dash of ash on my head, but why is it there? For some, and I think this has been emphasized over the past few years, the cross of ash is a symbol of faith. To many it has become a proclamation and public display of faith. That is not what the priest says when placing ashes on a forehead. The priest says (or should say) that we come from ashes and to ashes we return.* They can also say repent and remember the gospel. The first saying is a reminder of that first reading of Genesis Gn 2:7-9; 3:1-7 where God forms man from a ball of clay, we gain life through the breath of God. The second phrase comes from the temptation of Adam and Eve by the serpent in the garden. In that story they fall to temptation and out of God’s grace. That action is man’s original sin. The ashes remind us of who created us, and of our frail human nature, and our path to salvation. While that reading of our birth and fall from Genesis chronicles our human nature and frailties, the reading of Jesus’s temptation Mt 4:1-11 by the same devil emphasizes HIS divinity. Jesus does not fall to temptation. He leads us back on that path towards the garden. Jesus leads us to salvation. The ashes are a poignant reminder of who we are, and who Jesus is.
The ashes are a reminder of our sinful nature, and that first couple was not the only of our kind to sin. Ashes are a reminder of the traditional Old Testament signs of repentance. In that Old Testament man acknowledged their sins by covering their heads in ashes and their bodies in sackcloth. In the ancient Christian traditions, ashes were sprinkled on the penitents as they lie on rough cloth. Penance then was strict, with those sinners standing outside the Church until their penitential acts were completed. Sometimes it is helpful to know traditions of both the Old and New Testaments over time in order to understand traditions of today.
Today, often one only considers themselves a penitent if a Big Sin was committed, and even then the sin is only admitted reluctantly. Those Big Sins are named mortal sins because the break a link to God, they are the sins that kill the soul. The truth is that there are many times per day a person has the occasion to sin. There are 86,400 seconds per day, and each one of them an opportunity to fall. Every choice is an opportunity to do right or wrong. Every second is the chance to do something we should not have, or forget to do something we should have. Before that first couple were guided by the snake, man only knew the grace of God. Our inheritance is the choice between good and evil. We don’t always choose “good”, that is for certain.
While the reading of Genesis documents our fall, the reading from Mathew tells of what was done to save us. It also gives hint at what we are to do this season. The Gospel is the Good News, and that news tells us to pick up our cross and follow him. Gospel tells us how to deal with those temptations as Jesus did. The gospel explains how to say no to the serpent in the desert. The season that is derived from that gospel, Lent, has three concise tools to aid us on our path. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Prayer reminds that there is indeed something greater than us, it also is a path to call for help and ask for strength. Fasting also focuses on something greater than our immediate needs. It builds strength and character. Almsgiving is an act of charity of love. It is a reminder of a God that loves us. It is a reminder to do the same to others, it is also a reminder of the abundant blessings we have received.
How would I explain these readings of the first Sunday of Lent, how would I explain the past four days? It and they are a road map for a journey that is about to begin. They are a reminder of where we are starting from, where we are headed too, and a summary of what we need to get there. The first name for the Church that Jesus the Christ founded was “The Way.” Might this day be the first road post along that Way?
*”Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.”