Before we begin our reflection, let me ask you: Why are you all here? You are more than 2,000 in this mass, many of you are patiently standing at the back. This is a full-packed overflowing congregation! Are you here for the ash? And why ash, and not garden soil? Will something happen to you if you are not given the cross on your forehead? Ash Wednesday is not a holiday of obligation, thus you are not required to come to this mass (But, December 8 is!). Let me explain to you the symbol of the ash so that we will be able to appreciate this practice.
Ash is a universal symbol of repentance and mourning. It is a natural product of destruction and death to something alive like a tree. When we are in mourning or in penitence, there is something that has been destroyed. Our hearts break when someone passed away or when we ended a friendship. Relationships are severed when we hurt family members or friends. Likewise, we break God’s heart when we sin. And thus, we use the ash to symbolize sorrow for this break-up.
The Gospel today emphasizes sincerity: we do not do things for show. As ash is placed on your forehead, what comes to your mind? We can think about our strained relationships and those we already cut our ties off. And then we reflect how we have contributed to its end. Likewise, we can think about how we have broken God’s heart by our refusal to love.
The ash is also a symbol of mortality. The minister of the ashes would say as they mark our foreheads, “Remember you came from dust and from dust you shall return.” When we are faced with our mortality, we realize many things. First, we accept the fact of our limitations. This leads us to need other people, making us humble and appreciative of other people’s gifts. Second, we accept the fact that we only have a number of years. And so we should make the most out of it. We spend quality time with people we love. We strive to excel in things we are passionate about. Or we mend broken relationships.
The ash used today is taken from the branches used in the Palm Sunday services. It reminds us to look at the whole picture: we already know that the final word is triumph in the resurrection and not suffering, defeat or death. Ash Wednesday begins the Season of Lent: 40 days dedicated for mourning and repentance: fasting, abstinence, acts of charity, and the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The whole 40 days are meant for prayer, reflection and preparation for Easter.
Because what is Easter? It is when broken relationships are restored; when sins are forgiven; and when we discover that love between two or more people, despite our limitations, is eternal. So we when we put on ash, we are saying that we are willing to reconcile with our neighbor and with God.