Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of a 40-day pilgrimage toward the joy of the Resurrection. On this day, millions of Christians around the world will hear the words, “Remember that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return,” as they are marked with the dust of ashes. Ashes are a sign of pride—we are marked for Christ; and of humility—we are dust, we cannot save ourselves, we need a Savior. More than a dismal season marked by restricted freedoms, Lent offers us the opportunity to come home to Christ. We are given the time and space to examine the parts of our heart that remain stony, and, with the help of our Lord, turn them into flesh. We are presented with a chance to walk in solidarity with Christ as he journeys to the Cross, so that we too might die to self in order to experience new life.
A central theme during Lent is that of penance and reconciliation, as evidenced by the alternative phrase that can be used on Ash Wednesday: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” As much as we ought to see ourselves in the faces of Mary, Mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, and Simon of Cyrene, we must also do the difficult work of examining the ways in which we are pharisaical, the times we betray like Judas and deny like Peter, the moments in which we join the crowd and shout, “Crucify!” Identifying these traits within ourselves can be painful, but the true labor comes from extracting the weeds from the soil of our heart and then ensuring that the soil remains healthy. It is work we cannot do alone; otherwise, Lent would become merely an annual project in self-improvement. Rather, it is work that needs to be brought to the confessional so that we can receive the necessary healing and grace.