Lent begins with Ash Wednesday on February 14. The word “Lent” comes from an old English word that means “springtime.” Spring reminds us of spring cleaning and the new life in nature that develops after winter. In a similar way, this season of Lent can be a special grace for us as it is an opportunity to do some spring cleaning in our lives and enjoy new life in Christ as a result. We begin that process by publically acknowledge that we are sinners.
The words of the Lord spoken through the prophet Joel are words of special significance as we begin this season of Lent.
Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the Lord, your God.
For gracious and merciful is he,
slow to anger, rich in kindness,
and relenting in punishment.”
In the Scriptures when people left sin behind and turned over a new leaf, they used ashes to symbolize their repentance. For example, Job said: “I disown what I have said and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6).
Daniel made the same point when he said: “I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes” (Dan 9:3). In that spirit of repentance, we likewise take ashes on our foreheads.
To show that we are serious about overcoming sin, we do penance. Our penance during Lent, as well as being a small attempt at reparation for our sins, is a symbol of the change of heart we want to achieve. In the Gospel used on Ash Wednesday, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18, Jesus speaks about prayer, fasting and giving alms. Since the early centuries, the Church has encouraged us to undertake these three practices as a form of penance: praying more, fasting and giving alms to the poor. But of all we do during Lent, the most important action we can take is to give up sin.
Let us, therefore, use this season to grow closer to the Lord and leave sin behind. Then we will know even more than we know today: God’s love, God’s peace and God’s mercy.