As has been our life since last March, due to the pandemic we have had to adapt how we celebrate so many aspects of our faith. Because of health concerns, many have not been able to personally participate in some of the sacraments of the Church, particularly the celebration of Mass. Technology, through our livestreamed Masses, has kept us connected, but it has not been what we experienced when our entire parish communities would worship together.
If you were among those who went to Mass on Ash Wednesday, you did not have ashes marked upon you in the manner to which you were accustomed. Instead, in following a directive from the Holy See, ashes were sprinkled upon you — a longtime practice for the distribution of ashes in many other parts of the world.
In our cultural environment, we have been forced by the pandemic to do without or limit many of the customary ways we express our Catholic faith. That adjustment is difficult for us; it is a trial and sorrow. At the same time, we’re doing it for a greater, common good which is to safeguard the health of us all. For this reason, it’s appropriate that we’ve made these adaptations, knowing that they are temporary.
For some, this form for receiving ashes was disconcerting because we welcome the external, tangible symbols of our faith. We want to express our beliefs through physical encounter with these sacramentals. That is why Masses on Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday regularly attract — in pre-COVID years — a large number of participants.
But the externals are only part of what we express; the ashes indicate the spirit with which we approach Lent and the change of heart we seek. In the Gospel for Ash Wednesday — Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18 — Jesus emphasizes interior transformation. He admonishes us not to draw attention to ourselves when it comes to the penitential acts we do during Lent.
That is the intent of Lent — the ongoing interior conversion of heart. While the manner in which we receive ashes changed for this year, our commitment to conversion didn’t. More than ever, the words associated with our reception of ashes, “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel,” should be guiding us this season.
Those words are the basis for the ongoing change of heart for which we strive. Not only are they applicable to our daily prayer and reflection during Lent, but they should be the impetus for how we live throughout the year.
For example, while we are required to abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent, the Church did not put aside that abstinence on Fridays during the rest of the year. Instead, it said you could do — and should do! — an alternative sacrifice every Friday if, for whatever reason, one needed not to abstain.
The external expressions of Lent and the internal conversion are complementary. The external presentation appeals to our senses; it is something meant to enhance, enable, facilitate and reinforce our internal transformation. That is a personal experience. For some, it is easy to enter that place of reflection and formation, while for others, it takes more time and external actions to make progress in it.
What is important is that we grow toward that place where our internal spirit of repentance and our external manifestation of repentance both aid in drawing us closer to God, and we don’t lose our longing for the external presentation of our faith which, for many, we manifest in prayer, fasting and almsgiving, giving evidence of our interior change of heart.
Our hope is that the inner transformation we experience will guide us throughout Lent and beyond, and that we will continue to turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.