For Christians, today is not any Wednesday of the year, for it carries a prefix — Ash, making it Ash Wednesday. It is an exclusive term used by Christians signifying, a) the importance of the day itself, b) marking the start of a special liturgical season of 40 days till Easter, and c) calling all Christians to dedicate this time of grace to prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
With an external sign of ashes applied on the foreheads and the words: “Thou art dust and unto dust thou shall return”, we would be initiated into living an internally spiritual life. In this inner journey we Christians are advised to make concerted efforts to turn our attention from worldly affairs to matters concerning the soul.
The Church helps the faithful live the spiritual life, asking us to perform inner conversion by offering especially prepared liturgical worship. For instance, the Bible passage of today would address us: “Now, now — it is the Lord who speaks — come back to me with all your heart, fasting, weeping and mourning. Let your hearts be broken not your garments torn, turn to the Lord your God again, for He is all tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in graciousness, and ready to relent.” Again using St Paul’s words, the Church would exhort: “…we beg you once again not to neglect the grace of God that you have received”.
One must not forget that though this season begins with a visible sign of the Cross marked with ashes on the forehead, the real focus is on the conversion of the heart and mind towards God’s commandments. Jesus taught that God cares less for external expressions and is far happier with inner disposition. He said, “Be careful not to parade your good deeds before men to attract their notice; by doing this you will lose all rewards from your Father in heaven. So when you give alms, do not have it trumpeted before you…” He warned them similarly about not making any public show regarding fasting and prayer.
Regardless of which religion we follow or how we address our god or goddess, Ash Wednesday can be a good reminder for all to turn our focus on the divine. Only such an attitude can facilitate our journey toward God, which basically is a call to change our earthly ways of living in falsehood, deception, allurement of wealth or maya. For, God abides in our innermost being. Finding Him there will automatically turn us towards other human beings in service. After all, “we are dust and unto dust we shall return”.
And when we are on the inner journey, let us not restrict it to just 40 days of Lent but carry it on till we meet our Lord in heaven.
Father Dominic Emmanuel, a founder-member of the Parliament of Religions, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org