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A Guide to the Importance of Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday Cross

We’ve probably all heard at least a handful of sayings that start with the words: “There are two types of people in the world.” There are people who sort their laundry by color and type, and those who mix it all together. There are people who enjoy vacations, and others who prefer to relax at home. There are people who wake up with the first ring of the alarm, and then there are people who hit the snooze button half a dozen times.

While I think we can all agree that there are way more than two types of people in the world, these designations can still be helpful in promoting self-understanding. And I appreciate any tool that helps me make more sense of myself and the people around me!

If we divided people into the categories of individuals who love Mondays and those who can’t stand them, I’m definitely in the “love Mondays” camp. Sad as I sometimes am to see the concentrated family time and the restful nature of Sundays come to a close, I always appreciate the fresh start that a Monday morning brings. With a new weekly page in my planner and the sense that I have five whole days ahead of me accomplish *everything*, I embrace the first day of the week with a spring in my step and a smile on my face.

The truth is that I approach most beginnings this way. Be it the start of the school year, January 1, the first day of school summer vacation, or my birthday, I feel motivated and inspired by beginnings.

And that includes today.

As many Catholics know, today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Liturgical season of Lent. Ash Wednesday is an important day for Catholics and Christians around the world, for many reasons. Here are a few:

Ash Wednesday sets the tone for the season of Lent

Part of the reason why I like beginnings of all kinds is that they set the tone for the days/weeks/months ahead. If I get the first moment of a particular time-block right, I’m geared up for success in the rest of the week/month/year. For instance, if I eat a healthy breakfast on Monday, I make better choices throughout the rest of the week. If I start summer break with routines and rituals that keep my kids oriented, the rest of the season unfolds more smoothly. The same is true for Lent. I’ve found that if our family begins Ash Wednesday with intentionality and focus regarding the behaviors and practices that we’d like to cultivate throughout the next 40 days, we’re so much more inclined to stay centered for the entire season.

So we make sure to have a discussion on Ash Wednesday morning (or before) about how we plan to honor the Lenten season. Do we want to pray the rosary together each evening? Or perhaps collectively give up sweets? Is there a neighbor or acquaintance whom we want to love in consistent and tangible ways (such as soup deliveries or sidewalk shoveling)? Or behaviors that we want to embrace as a family (saying a Glory Be each time we catch ourselves complaining)?

There are endless possibilities of meaningful ways to practice the Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, and we make sure to get concrete in our plans on Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday slows us down

Ash Wednesday — along with Good Friday — is one of the two obligatory days of fasting and abstinence within the Catholic Church. What this means is that Catholics between the ages 18 and 59 (who are in good health and don’t have extenuating circumstances including pregnancy) should abstain from eating meat and keep their food consumption limited to one normal sized meal and two smaller meals that together are not equal to the full meal.

Everyone has a different experience of fasting, but for most people, it isn’t easy. Personally, it tires me out…and I think that’s a good thing. Being hungry and tired forces me to slow down. Instead of bustling around completing an array of tasks (cooking dinner, checking on homework, entertaining the baby) all at once, I’m more inclined to sit and watch my children play, let my mind wander, and just be still, in the moment, with God.

Ash Wednesday focuses us on God

Along with slowing me down, fasting serves as a day-long reminder to turn to God. I’ve always simultaneously loved and been baffled by the instructions in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18: “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances.” I want to pray continually, but how?! Well, Ash Wednesday certainly helps.

I’ve found that no practice quite like fasting keeps me focused on God throughout the day. Anytime I feel a pang of hunger or a desire to snack (which is pretty much all day on Ash Wednesday), I am reminded of my faith and my God. And instead of reaching for a snack, I reach towards God in prayer.

Ash Wednesday reminds us of our mortality

One of the images most clearly associated with Ash Wednesday is that of a cross shaped smudge of ashes on a forehead. I love feeling connected to strangers when I spot those ashes above the brows of fellow Christians in the grocery store, on the street, or at my children’s after-school activities.

And even more, I love what those ashes tell me. When given, ashes are often accompanied with the words, “For you are dust and to dust you shall return,” a sentiment that I find freeing even as it is sobering. To be reminded that my life is limited and that before long my body will be nothing but dust both humbles me and gives me perspective. Remembering my mortality reminds me not to sweat the small stuff and to do good with what time I have.

Friends, I am thinking of you and praying for you on this important day in our Church year. May this Ash Wednesday — and the entire season of Lent ahead — be one of reflection and growth for you. May we all find moments to slow down, focus on God, and remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.

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