This coming Wednesday the Church begins the time of Lent with the celebration of Ash Wednesday. Many of us have, at more than one moment in our life, felt self-conscious walking along the streets or going to work or school after Mass on Ash Wednesday with a huge black spot on our forehead. Seeing people staring at you as they try to figure out how that dirt could end up in your forehead. The truth is that this simple gesture of putting ashes on our head or forehead is in fact very deep in meaning because the meaning and the symbolism of the ashes and dirt in Biblical language is very rich. The hearts of sinners are many times compared with ashes “Ashes, his heart; more vile than earth, his hope; more wretched than clay, his life!” (Wisdom 15:10). Also riches and temporal goods are compared with ashes, for the low real value that they have: “He hankers after ashes, his deluded heart has led him astray; he will not save himself, he will not think, 'What I have in my hand is nothing but a lie!'” (Isaiah 44:20). By extension the result of sin and wrongdoing is only an illusion, a bubble, nothingness and ashes. That is why the sinner who refuses to repent is humiliated by God to dust and ashes: “By the immense number of your crimes, by the dishonesty of your trading, I have reduced you to ashes on the ground before the eyes of all who saw you” (Ezekiel 28:18). Dust and ashes are as well a symbol of human frailty: “Abraham spoke up and said, 'It is presumptuous of me to speak to the Lord, I who am dust and ashes'” (Gen 18:27). Finally, pouring ashes on oneself or seating on ashes is, in the Bible, a common penance that expresses the sorrow and the humility of the sinner who repents and decides to bring changes to his life. “When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his robe, put on sackcloth and sat down in ashes (Jon 3:6) It was a way to make present God´s future judgement in order to attract his mercy. “The spirit of Lord is on me for he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring the news to the afflicted, to soothe the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, release to those in prison, […] to comfort all who mourn, to give them for ashes a garland, for mourning-dress, the oil of gladness, for despondency, festal attire” (Isa 61:1-3). So, yes, Ash Wednesday is a day to remember the little value of the many things in which we put our heart, the shortness and precariousness of human life, our sinfulness and also our need to convert and make changes in our life. But all this having Easter and the resurrection of Christ in mind, always remembering that our frailty, sorrow, precariousness and sinfulness will be transformed into joy and strength and new life. Fr Daniel Herrero Peña
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