By Fr. Erik Esparza
There is no denying the immense popularity of Ash Wednesday.
What is it about the first day of Lent every year that brings out the faithful, the struggling, the lapsed, and the searching?
It has to be more than simply going to get ashes on the forehead, right? But what is the attraction?
There may be no quick or easy answer to understand the popularity of Ash Wednesday. In many ways, as a Church, our focus should not be so much on trying to make sense of this phenomenon; rather the focus should be on seizing the moment: Seizing the moment to welcome, to embrace, to evangelize and to journey with all who return home, as they desire to begin a Lenten journey.
This year, the Lenten Season begins with the celebration of Ash Wednesday on February 14, which also happens to be St. Valentine’s Day. What can be more romantic than to treat your special valentine to a nice quiet evening of reflection (prayer), a banquet like no other (the Mass), and a special gift (ashes)! The unexpected gift of this year’s Ash Wednesday falling on February 14 provides us a unique opportunity to reflect on the meaning of true love, in particular, the love of God. It can easily be said that this year we have been chosen as Jesus’ valentine! Jesus shows time and again just how important, special, unique and beloved each of us is to Him. He endured pain, suffering and death so as to lead us through it all and to offer eternal life through His Resurrection. The world has never seen any greater sign of love. The salvation story is truly a story of love, Jesus’ love for us. But what is our response to such great love?
In Lent of 2017, Pope Francis said, “Our salvation is certainly his fight, but, because it’s a story of love, it requires our ‘yes’ and our participation as shown to us by our Mother Mary and, after her, all of the Saints.”
There is no doubt for all the countless reasons people may seek out ashes on Ash Wednesday, it can really be all summed up in the great saying of St. Augustine, “Our soul is restless until it rests in you, O Lord.”
Humanity is constantly searching and seeking an answer for our restlessness. As often as we try to find it in the pleasures of the world, we are ultimately left restless. Each Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday, humanity is provided once more a time, a place and a means to seek God no matter where we traveled the year before and no matter how many defeats we endured. As humans we encounter God and the world through the senses. The liturgy service and the receiving of the ashes enable us to hear the invitation to accept God’s love and to embrace God’s call to conversion. It is in that process of conversion that we can encounter the presence of God and allow our soul to be at rest.
Lent is a time and season to slow down and reflect on one’s personal relationship with God. Like Jesus we are led into the desert. Although we may not literally be in a desert, the invitation to prayer, fasting and almsgiving gives, like a desert, the opportunity, time, space, and focus to escape the noise and distractions to be more attentive to our personal walk with God and the restlessness inside each of us.
It is so easy in the world today to settle. Often times in our relationship with God we settle for the minimum and shy away from sacrifice. When we do desire to be and to give more, we may seek it on our own terms and with our conditions. Sometimes we prefer popularity to virtuous living. Rather than seeking the absolute truth of God we prefer picking and choosing what suits us right here and right now. Instead of seeking God’s will, we favor our own will to be done. We choose pride over humility and give only a part of our heart when God asks for it all. When we live in this way, we are often left restless!
Lent is a season of conversion and growth. It is a time to change attitudes and behaviors that lead away from God to a way of life that helps us to grow closer to God. When you consider giving up or adding something to your life this Lent, ask yourself one question, “Will this help my soul to grow closer to God?” If the answer is no, it’s not too late to consider something else that will better help you to return to God with your whole heart!
Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel!
Fr. Erik Esparza is Associate Director of the Office of Priest Personnel in the Diocese of San Bernardino.