Lent beyond the ashes

Besides Christmas and Easter, parishes usually experience the biggest crowds on Ash Wednesday. People are inherently sacramental—we are made to physically experience life, including the spiritual realm—so that is certainly part of the filled pews. But there is an even deeper reality to Ash Wednesday that I want to bring to your attention.

When we receive ashes we are participating in an ancient practice that was first associated with entry into the Order of Penitents. It is this penitential aspect that I want to highlight as we begin Lent, especially because it is so frequently misunderstood.

The Order of Penitents came into existence in the early Church for those who had committed a serious sin after their baptism. The penitent would confess their sin, receive a penance from the bishop or his delegate and then be enrolled in the order. When they entered, penitents would receive ashes on their head, be given a prominent location to occupy in the church, and put on clothes that marked their state of penance. The penances could last a few years so that a true, deep conversion of the heart could occur.

At the beginning of the 11th century, the Anglo-Saxon homilist Abbot Aelfric offers one of the first implicit references of the use of ashes by all believers, not just official penitents.

It is written “in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins covered themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.”

We can all benefit from focusing on Ash Wednesday as a time to undergo deeper conversion through penance so that we are able to welcome the Risen Lord at Easter with fuller joy.

When we receive ashes, we are engaging in a form of penance that visibly humbles us. We acknowledge that we are sinners, unfaithful to the Lord and the commandments he has given us. We hear the words, “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel,” or “Remember, you are dust and to dust you will return,” which remind us of our mortality and our need for conversion.

But in my experience most people don’t know much about the practice of penance, except in connection with confession.

The very first thing I want to point out is that we are not Pelagians. We do not believe that we earn our salvation by doing a sufficient amount of good deeds. That is impossible, since every sin we commit is an offense against God, who is infinitely good, and therefore the degree of our offense is beyond our own finite means of restitution. That is why it was necessary for Jesus to reconcile us with the Father. We cannot do it on our own. Jesus alone is the savior of the world.

So why do acts of penance? The true aim of any act of penance is to move our heart toward conversion, to turn away our heart from sin and embrace the love God the Father offers us in Jesus Christ.

Citing Matthew’s Gospel (6:1-6, 16-18), the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes in paragraph 1430 that without conversion “penances remain sterile and false; however, interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures and works of penance.”

Most Catholics are familiar with the concept of giving up something for Lent, but what is not well understood is that these sacrifices, these acts of penance, have value because they teach virtue, not because the things sacrificed are bad.

Giving up sweets, coffee, alcohol or listening to music is good because it helps us grow in our ability to turn away from something we desire. Fasting is also important because it helps us focus the eyes of our heart on Jesus, just as he focused the eyes of his heart on the Father in the 40 days he spent fasting. Our heart, made for God, longs for deeper intimacy with the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Fasting strengthens our ability to turn toward the good when we are faced with a temptation to sin.

This Ash Wednesday, as we begin the 40 days of Lent, I encourage you to think about acts of penance that you can do to draw closer to Christ and the Trinity and turn away from any sins that have a foothold in your life.

Unfortunately, the Latin Church no longer requires 40 days of fasting as she did for centuries. Yet, it is a practice that we can take up on our own, following the practices of the Eastern Churches which still preserve the fast.

Some possible penances and good works you can do this Lent are taking part in spiritual exercises; prayerfully reading one of the Gospels during Lent or the section of the Catechism on the sacrament of reconciliation; spending time in eucharistic adoration each week; participating in penitential liturgies such as the Stations of the Cross and penance services; going on pilgrimage; or acts of self-denial such as fasting, almsgiving and works of charity like serving the poor or giving witness to Christ.

May God bless you with a fruitful and virtuous Lent so that you may draw closer to Christ and joyfully welcome the Risen Lord at Easter!

COMING UP: Team Samaritan cyclist goes ‘Everesting’ for the homeless and hungry

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When it comes to the daily sufferings of those who are homeless, there’s nothing like a 29,029-foot bike ride to keep things in perspective.

That’s exactly what Corbin Clement will be doing this Saturday, June 19, with a couple of his riding buddies as they attempt an “Everesting” ride to raise money for the Samaritan House homeless shelter in Denver. Starting at Witter Gulch Road in Evergreen, the three riders will climb Squaw Pass Road to a point in Clear Creek County and ride back down the hill for over eight laps, which amounts to roughly 190 miles in distance and the equivalent of the elevation of Mt. Everest in terms of vertical climbing – hence the name “Everesting.” Their goal is to complete the feat in 20 hours or less.

Oh, and they can’t sleep. It is, indeed, just as crazy as it sounds. Those who aren’t avid cyclists might be wondering, “How in the world do you train for something like this?” 
“For training, it’s been just more or less ride as much as possible,” Clement told the Denver Catholic. “The training is structured around endurance, and that’s of course what Everesting is. It’s just a lot of peddling. So, a lot of my training so far has just been trying to ride as much as possible and ride longer high elevation rides.” 

In March, an Irish cyclist set the world record for Everesting when he completed the feat in six hours and 40 minutes. Clement isn’t trying to set a record, but regardless, it’s quite a feat to undertake, even for a seasoned athlete like him, whose pedigree includes snowboarding and rock climbing. 

“Our ride will be the same thing, but it’ll be pretty different,” Clement said. “We don’t have any sort of special bikes or super focused diet or a really regimented plan or a crew that’s very well-instructed on how we’re going to tackle this. I’ve read a couple of things to just kind of make it into a party — have friends come out to support you, get people to join you on certain laps…that’s kind of the approach we’re taking.” 

Clement has already raised $5,200 for Samaritan House, with a current goal of $8,000. This is Clement’s first year riding for Team Samaritan, but his dad, Kevin, has ridden for the team for several years. When his dad offered to give him an extra kit and uniform, Clement accepted, but didn’t want to take it without doing something help the cause. He could’ve simply opted for a nice ride in the countryside, but he chose to do something a bit more challenging.  

Corbin Clement used to experience the challenges that homeless people face on a daily basis when commuting through downtown Denver to work on his bike. This Saturday, he will raise money for Samaritan House homeless shelter by “Everesting,” a 190-mile bike ride that is the equivalent of the elevation of Mt. Everest in terms of vertical climbing. (Photo provided)

“For some reason, the Everesting idea popped into my head,” he explained. “I think it’s one of those things that has a little bit of shock value for people who hear about it. It’s certainly something that’s gained more popularity and visibility in the last couple of years with endurance athletes. I wanted to choose something that would actually be a challenge for myself and something that I’d have to work towards.” 

Clement currently resides in Utah, but he used to live in Denver and commute by bike to work every day. During those rides to his office, which was located near Samaritan House, he would pass many homeless people and have conversations with them. This experience was also a motivating factor for his Everesting attempt for Team Samaritan. 

“It’s very different when you’re on a bike versus in a car because you’re right there,” Clement said. “If you stop at a stoplight and a homeless person is on the corner, whether or not they’re panhandling or something like that, you hear the conversations, or you’ll have a conversation with them. There are things you smell or you hear or you see that you just never would if you were in a car. So, it kind of made sense, too, with the biking aspect. It’s part of my community that I’ve lived and worked in for a very long time.” 

Clement’s Everesting attempt is one event in a series of endurance event’s he’s doing over the summer that culminates with the Leadville 100, a single-day mountain bike race across the Colorado Rockies. In that race, he will be riding to support young adults diagnosed with cancer by raising funds for First Descents.  

Both causes are near to Clement’s heart, and he said that while his Everesting attempt will be a form of “suffering,” it pales in comparison to what the homeless face day in and day out. This is ultimately why he’s riding and raising funds for Team Samaritan. 

“Any time we see a homeless person or people who have to live on the streets,” Clement said, “That is true suffering — true endurance — with no end in sight.” 

To learn more about Corbin’s fundraising efforts or to donate, click here.