Ashes to ashes…

This year’s Shrove Tuesday pancakes – served as usual by the current crop of eighth grade confirmands in the parish hall – were quite possibly the best ever.

We arrived late and found a companionable table;  the gaudy Mardi Gras decorations were taken down around us before we’d finished eating.

The parties are over now; it’s time to sober up, literally and figuratively. Today, we enter the season of Lent, a time for introspection and a little healthy self-denial.

To ash or not to ash is an eternal question. Some quote Jesus on hypocrites who run around in sack-cloth and ashes; others find it a useful symbol of our sinful natures, and one with a lot of backing in Scripture.

If nothing else, it is a very public testimony of religious allegiance, if not, in every case, faith: a reminder to all who see the wearer that this is a holy day. The sometimes startled reactions of colleagues and strangers reminds us, in turn, that we are wearing a declaration of belief on our foreheads.

In the coming weeks, we’ll have ample opportunities to consider just what Lent is and what it means. What it is not, though, is a time for self-improvement justified by a veneer of holiness: the idea is not to give up chocolate or Scotch with a hope of losing weight or cutting down on our booze intake.

The idea, rather, is to consider what Our Lord gave up for us. Taking on obligations – of prayer, of sacrifice, of helping others – may be more helpful to us spiritually than giving up the superficial. The cross worn smeared on the forehead is rightly an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, a sign of true intent toward repentance and reformation of life.

– sbm

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