“Lord, bless the sinner who asks for your forgiveness and bless those who receive these ashes. May they keep this Lenten season in preparation for the joy of Easter.”
This short prayer over the ashes summarizes the meaning of the season of Lent. We admit that we are sinners. We are sorry and we long for forgiveness. The Lenten season, often experienced as depressing because of the focus on repentance, is actually a “joyful season,” because it is a preparation for Easter, the feast that foreshadows our eternal Easter which we hope to enter after our death.
The ashes we bless and receive today are made from the palm branches we waved joyfully last year on Palm Sunday. Then they were fresh and green, a pleasure to look at. They were symbols of our faith in Jesus Christ, the King of kings, to whom we renewed our allegiance during the Easter Vigil when we renewed our baptismal promises. Now these branches are dry, brown, unpleasant to look at: symbols of our souls which, over the weeks and months, were soiled again by our imperfections, our disloyalty, our sins.
But God gives us today another chance to return to Him, to return to the beauty and innocence of our baptism. “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.” With these words He gives us the guide to reach the goal of this season: repentance and faithfulness to the words of Christ who speaks daily to us through the liturgy.
Some ancient practices of Lent may help us: prayer, fasting, almsgiving, works of mercy. This combination makes us reach out to God as well as to our neighbor.