Sign with no sincerity – A reflection for Ash Wednesday

Sign with no sincerity- A reflection on Ash Wednesday

There is nothing magical in ash; it’s just an outward sign of what I willingly subject myself to in the season of lent. Yet I have observed that many Catholics come to the sacristy asking for ash to be imposed on members of their family who are housebound or for a working member of the family. Let us drill this in into our head, it’s only SIGN and no more, and making a virtue of it, is to treat a sign as if it had some magical power. Then why do we use ash in the first place on Ash Wednesday?

Ash is used because it has both, Biblical roots and significance. One of the many symbolic uses of ash was a sign of repentance. In the Old Testament, people did not have a pretty well-constructed artistic cross imposed on one’s head, as we do today. One would wear sackcloth and sit in ashes, sprinkling the same on one’s head. Now you know why we use ash and why on the forehead!

So we must understand that what we do symbolically, should not be turned ritually into a ‘magic show’. There is nothing magical about ash, for it is merely an outward sign. This brings us now to the inner disposition, and I would like to explain that with an analogy.

There is no danger in a red traffic light per se. No one skirts gingerly around a traffic light expecting the ‘red light’ to fall on one’s head if they stood below a traffic light. There is no danger in the colour red; it’s just a sign that if you don’t stop, there will be an accident.  A sign points to a greater reality. Similarly, ash is just a sign of what I choose to happen in my heart. What takes place in my heart is the greater reality, and that is the point of Lent.  No amount of Ash is going to transform you if repentance in the heart, is not the ultimate goal.

This repentance cannot be forced upon you by guilt, pressure or ritual; it is something you must choose freely. When we present ourselves to the priest to have ashes imposed, we are willingly submitting to a forty day period of renewal. If we submit to ashes as a ritual or some sort of ‘blessing’ (even worse), then we have failed to understand the season of Lent. It is for this reason that the sacrament of reconciliation should be availed off, prior to the season and not only as a culmination of it.

Walking down the line in Church, to have ashes imposed on us, is a public admittance of our sins and a willingness to submit freely to a change of heart. The two must go together – admittance of failings and freedom or desire to be transformed. The very words of the priest as he imposes ashes are meant to be a reminder of these two actions that are a pre-requisite of every Catholic.

How empty is a sign without sincerity!

Fr Warner D’Souza


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