Years ago, when my wife and I were still dating (and definitely before we were married and had kids), I used to go to a coffee shop nearby almost every night. I’d spend time reading, writing, praying, and reflecting on my vocation in life. When we started dating, we used to start to go there together almost every night and just sit and talk for hours on end.
One Ash Wednesday, after attending evening Mass together and receiving our ashes on our foreheads, we headed to the coffee shop together.
As we walked in, another younger man who I had befriended – someone studying for ministry in a Protestant seminary, with whom I often enjoyed discussing faith topics and our different faith traditions – came up to Suzanne and me.
“So you got your ashes… Now you think you’re going to heaven?”, he asked.
I was taken aback. We had always had such wonderful, mutually respectful discussions. This was the first time had been rude, or forceful, or abrasive. I didn’t have much to say in the moment, as I was so shocked.
As the years have passed and I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on his words and implication, some of what I might have said has formed in my head.
In the readings for Mass on Ash Wednesday, we hear, “Rend your hearts, not your garments” (Joel 2:13a), and “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them… When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you… When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting… But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting.” (c.f. Matthew 6)
The Mass readings for Ash Wednesday certainly seem to discourage outward signs of fasting and almsgiving. But the very act of receiving the ashes means we walk out of the church with a sign of the start of our fast.
It’s important to remember, though, that it’s a sign that’s intended to remind us that we come from dust, and to dust we will return, to help kick-start our focus on our private self-denial and growth in faith that we seek during our Lenten journey. The ashes are a reminder of the call to continue our journey toward God – to turn back around and journey toward him if we’ve turned away – and to start our Lenten journey.
The ashes quickly fade, but the effort to rend our hearts begins anew, with a renewed focus and fervor, as our Lent begins.
I venture to guess that my friend was really getting to the heart of many of our prior conversations, which was on the age-old (500 years old?) discussion of the relationship of faith and works. I could go into essay-length writing here on that point alone, but I won’t… there’s a great summary of the “faith and works” discussion by Jimmy Akin over at Catholic Answers.
Ash Wednesday (and receiving our ashes) is the start of a wonderful journey. I’ve always been one to not know what I’m going to give up or do for Lent until I wake up Ash Wednesday morning.
Sometimes, especially when I was younger, it was self-denial – giving up something that I really enjoyed. That can often be very fruitful. One of the best examples of that was seeing my second-oldest son give up Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups (one of his favorite things in the universe) last year. He went through some tough temptations through Lent and had a hard time holding to his fast, but he held strong and grew in his own self-control and focus on other priorities through the experience.
In recent years, I’ve focused my journey on adding some activity to my day-to-day – something like reading the daily readings, or some part of the Bible each day, or going out of my way to do a few extra “good turns” for others each day, or resolving to take over some household chore that someone else usually does.
If my friend asked me the question today, “So you got your ashes… Now you think you’re going to heaven?”, my response would be something like, “I have faith in my new life in Christ, and I continue to work out my salvation by taking part in His sacrifice. I hope to be among the saints in heaven.” That’d inspire quite a discussion, I’m sure.
I hope and pray that your Lenten journey this year is a fruitful one. Let’s keep working together and supporting each other on this journey of faith, this journey to become better Christians, and to hopefully “see” each other in heaven someday.