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  • Writer's picturePeter Kennedy

Ash Wednesday

What should we do with those who have rejected Christ and his Church?

ash cross

In a simplified manner, Ash Wednesday is a reflection of the answer to that question as handed down to us in the early Church. There was a time when the Church was unsure of how to handle those who had been baptized and then found themselves in a situation where they had committed serious sins, sins that in some way or another were an outright rejection of Christ and their baptismal promises.  Certainly, Jesus had preached that we should forgive, but how do we help the sinner understand the seriousness of what they have done, and grow in grace and virtue so that they have the strength to avoid sin in the future?

First, let’s start with the ashes.  This takes us back to the Old Testament where this was understood as a visible sign of my own weakness and depravity due to sin.  You may recall the book of Jonah (3:6) where the people of Ninevah repent after Jonah’s preaching. To show their acknowledgement of their own sinfulness, they put on sack cloth and cover their faces in ashes or dust.  They declare a fast, and turn from the violence their city was known for.  It seems this has been a common practice throughout the millennia.

The early Church looked to passages like these for part of their answer.  If we have rejected God, it would be good for us to repent and the scriptures show us what that looks like.  So if you committed a serious sin in the early Church, you were asked to confess it (publicly), do penance, and in many cases, actually wear sack cloth and ashes.  Further, you were asked to remain outside the congregation, set apart for a time until you were allowed to return. Our version of this is extremely simplified, but none the less, still represents an acknowledgement that we are sinners subject to judgement by God, that we desire to repent, and that we want to change our ways.

Today in the Church, we call those more serious sins “deadly sins” or “mortal sins” after a passage in the First Letter of John. John states:

If anyone sees his brother sinning, if the sin is not deadly, he should pray to God and he will give him life. This is only for those whose sin is not deadly. There is such a thing as deadly sin, about which I do not say that you should pray. (1John 5:16)

It is from this that the Church takes her teaching on the distinction between mortal and venial sin. As the Apostle states in this letter, for venial or lesser sins, we can simply pray for strength and endurance and we can be given the grace to overcome them.  He does not address in this letter how we might deal with more serious or mortal sins.  These things are addressed in the Gospels and elsewhere in the scriptures.

First and foremost, Jesus shows us how to overcome more serious matters at the very outset of his public ministry.  He sets off to the desert to deprive himself of all the desires of the various human appetites.  He will be deprived of food, drink, warmth at night and a way to cool himself in the heat of the day.  He will be deprived of human contact and the need for affection, he will find himself bothered at night by the sounds of the wilderness and unable to find proper sleep. He will have no power to protect himself, and he will live as a homeless man with no possessions.  All of this he does to make himself more resilient to temptation and sin.  After 40 days, he has what it takes to resist Satan himself.

The more we spend time fasting and praying, the more we can get in touch with our spiritual selves because we learn to control the demands of our bodies. We see this with figures like the Prophetess, Anna in Lukes Gospel (2:36-38) of whom Luke tells us, “She never left the temple but spent night and day, fasting and praying.”  The more we separate ourselves from the “false gods” desired by our passions and appetites the more we separate ourselves from the spirits of this world, the closer we can become to the Lord.

But even with all of this, there is still the need to confess our sins.  If I refuse to acknowledge that what I have done is sinful, then Jesus can’t offer us forgiveness.  He speaks of this in John’s Gospel after healing the man born blind.  Jesus said in speaking to the Pharisees, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.” (9:41) While he offers us forgiveness and healing, he does not impose it.

So, Lent and by way of introduction to Lent, Ash Wednesday becomes an entrance into this time of spiritual renewal.  If we are aware of serious sins, we should repent of them.  (Thanks to Irish monks, we can now do that privately, but that’s a blog for another time.) If we are aware of proclivity to sin and weakness, we should work on becoming stronger.  If we are attached to the things of this world, we should begin to detach from them.  In this way we can work on growing closer to the one thing that matters most, and prepare ourselves for that fight with the devil that is sure to come one way or another.

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