Ashes — the refuse that remains when fire has consumed something — remind us of the humble dust from which we were made and our place before God. Throughout Scripture, we see that the call to repent is often accompanied with the use of ashes, paired with the exhortation to believe. As we look ahead to the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday (Feb. 22 this year), these gifts of repentance and belief are the necessary foundation for faithfully following Jesus. Let’s dive into them.
The best way to understand repentance and belief are to look at the Our Father. Jesus begins this perfect prayer by first teaching us to praise the Father’s name and work for the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth through the Father’s will being followed. The establishment of the kingdom is the disciples’ mission, and it remains our mission today.
After giving the Church its mission, Jesus proceeds to equip us for it by instructing us to ask the Father for mercy, for forgiveness and a willingness to forgive others, and for protection from temptation and the influence of evil.
The Our Father, as St. Thomas Aquinas said, is “the most perfect of prayers. … In it we ask, not only for all the things we can rightly desire, but also in the sequence that they should be desired. This prayer not only teaches us to ask for things, but also in what order we should desire them, so that this prayer not only teaches us to ask, but also directs all our affections” (Summa Theologica, II-II,83,9).
Here, St. Thomas Aquinas touches on an aspect of the spiritual life that can be easy neglect. True repentance involves not just saying we’re sorry for sins we have committed, it also means allowing our affections and our desires to be exposed to the light and converted. While this can be uncomfortable, it is ultimately freeing.
St. Francis de Sales speaks about the depth of conversion required by using the analogy of a sick man whose doctor has told him that he must refrain from sweets, or he might die. He refrains from eating them, St. Francis notes, “but most unwillingly, he talks about them, and measures how far he may transgress … and envies those who can indulge in what is forbidden to him” (Introduction to the Devout Life, Ch. 7).
When we talk about avoiding “the near occasion of sin,” this means being vigilant for both the circumstances of temptation and bringing our misguided desires to the Lord for healing. Our hearts and wills must be cleansed from attachments to sin, and that’s something beyond our own power.
These depths of repentance require trust in the Father’s plan for us and in his goodness — in other words, belief. We see this pattern play out in salvation history. John the Baptist was sent to call the people to repentance and then, after he was arrested by Herod, Jesus began proclaiming, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1:15).
As we enter into deeper belief in the Gospel, we hand over areas of our life that we might have refused to bring to the Lord before, especially the freedom found in forgiveness. We trust and have confidence in the promises Jesus has given to us. We turn to him with all of our burdens, sins and wounds, confident that he will heal, forgive and give us rest. We learn from Jesus how to live in relationship with the Father and others. Conversion is not just a one-time event; it’s a life-long process of repentance and belief that only finishes when we meet Jesus face-to-face in eternity. This Lent, let us strive anew to repent and believe, allowing Jesus to conform us to him.
Archbishop Aquila will be publishing a pastoral note on forgiveness to guide us through Lent. Stay tuned to archden.org for the latest.