Lent Lived After the Ashes


I attended Ash Wednesday services on my lunch break one year, heading back to work afterward. Throughout the afternoon, as coworkers came by with questions or pages needing proofing, they would catch sight of my forehead and inevitably remark, “Oh, you’re Catholic!”

True, I had not broadcast my religious affiliation far and wide at work. It was more a matter of respect for others; in a diverse newsroom, where all are required—and proud—to provide an unbiased account of events, we tread carefully on topics that might strike raw nerves.

At the same time, I don’t think the revelation of my Catholicism really shocked anyone, either. I didn’t live in obvious opposition to my faith. But it made me think: What do I do to demonstrate my beliefs? Should others know by my actions that I have at heart an unending connection to this religion into which I was born?

Ash Wednesday, with its conspicuous mark of faith, is atypical for Catholics. As we read in Matthew 6:16-18, we are not to mope or moan while fasting. We are to wash our faces and trust that God will see our good works, even those done in silence. We are to carry our crosses with courage and grace.

And we all have crosses, some more heavy than others. It may seem that your neighbor has it easy: She’s always chipper, or his yard is neat and his car clean. But no one escapes trouble or sorrow entirely in this life. It may simply be that they have washed the ashes from their faces and bear their crosses in silence.

So what can you do this Lent to demonstrate your love for God and your willingness to share in the cross his Son carried for us? You can take up the crosses you encounter daily, and you can do so with faith, hope, and love.

One way is through the traditional Lenten practices of increased prayer, fasting, and giving to those in need. These practices can take on many unique forms in the course of even a busy day.

Think of 40 small steps you might take this Lent as you walk with Jesus on the road to Calvary. Add your shoulder under the cross—his cross, your own, and others’. Even more, try to do so with the trust that God sees your efforts, and that, paradoxically, there is no greater satisfaction or reward.

Taking Up the Cross in These 40 Days

Social scientists say it takes 28 days to change a habit. Lent asks us to change more than a habit. We’re invited to change our priorities and the focus of our lives. Maybe that’s why Lent takes a full 40 days and happens every year.

There are other reasons that our Lenten journey lasts 40 days. Throughout the Bible, the number 40 holds special meaning, indicating a span of time when significant events took place. It rained on Noah and his ark for 40 days and 40 nights. Moses spent 40 days and nights with God on Mount Sinai. The Hebrew people spent 40 years wandering in the desert upon their deliverance from slavery to the Promised Land. Jonah gave the city of Nineveh 40 days in which to repent. And Jesus fasted in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights.

Our time of preparation in Lent is akin to Jesus’ preparation for his work. We spend 40 days fasting, praying, and giving. “By the solemn 40 days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church says. We are called to live as representatives of Jesus today—even when the ashes have been washed away, even when no one is looking.

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