Ash Wednesday is a special day in the life of a Christian. Blessed ashes are placed on your forehead with the prayer: "Remember you are dust and to dust you will return" or "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel!"
Since we have short memories and have a tendency to forget, we need reminders of our baptismal calling in the Lord Jesus. Ash Wednesday is a wake-up call to renew our commitment to follow Christ. The Ash Wednesday ceremony, with its prayerful words and ashes placed in the form of a cross on the forehead, begins one's Lenten journey.
The fundamentals: Lent is one of life's journeys that lasts six weeks -- Ash Wednesday to Easter. It is a time for getting back to the fundamentals of Christian living. It is a journey of reform, renewal and reconciliation, of penance and prayer.
None of us walks this six-week journey alone. It is a journey we travel with our family and other brothers and sisters in the Christian community. It is the journey that we share toward the new life at Easter.
As Christians we can get caught up in "business-as-usual" that we may fail to take notice how we, as a family, have grown away from one another, away from our church assembly, and away from God. Lent is a time to pause, to look back and rearrange our approach to Christian living. Lent is a time of turning back, of turning away from those things harmful to our spiritual growth, a time of returning to Jesus Christ.
For many centuries, the Christian Lenten journey has focused on these aspects: Prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
Prayer time is important during Lent. Our prayer expresses what we do, and what we do affects those around us. We need to go to the desert and reflect with Jesus in a quiet place. Am I so busy that I do not have time for reflection? How can prayer assist me in meeting the challenges of life? What do I need to change so that I can pray always as Jesus suggested? How can I actively participate in the public prayers of the church by reflecting on the scriptures and joining my fellow worshippers on Sunday?
Fasting important: Fasting is considered part of one's Lenten journey. The requirement for fasting has been lessened in recent years. For the early Christians, fasting enabled another to eat. The Christians developed a practice of sending part of their meal to a poorer family. The Lenten fast today is seen as a religious act that involves more than food. I could set aside more time for prayer and reflection, limit TV to one hour a day, abstain from alcohol or drugs, or take time for myself.
Since early Christians had no special government agency for the needy, the poor, the homeless or the sick, they began to see almsgiving as an important practice together with prayer and fasting.
In our society there are many agencies that assist the needy. In our American society almsgiving is seen as a monetary donation. Some have come to believe that charity by the checkbook is equated to salvation by the checkbook. The money we share must somehow bring us into a personal sharing with the needy. In our modern society there are other ways of giving -- for example, visiting a nursing home, volunteering to read to the blind or handicapped, or visiting our grandparents at least once a week. We all could add to the list of almsgiving through personal endeavors that directly connect us with the needy.
Opportunity: Hence, Ash Wednesday provides a special opportunity to pray and reflect on one's style of life. During this Lenten journey, how will I fast, pray and give alms to the needy?
I am certain that on Easter morning one will find a renewed spirit to celebrate the joy of the resurrected Christ. Just imagine this journey of faith began with the ashes being placed on one's forehead on Ash Wednesday.
XMonsignor Lawrence C. Fye is rector at St. Columba Cathedral in Youngstown.