The Signs and Symbols of Love

I don’t have many specific memories from Catholic grade school, but one of the few traditions I vividly remember is attending all school Mass... especially the breakfast that followed. Because we had to arrive early at school and observed the rule of fasting before receiving Communion, the school provided a basic breakfast of cinnamon rolls, crumb buns and other breakfast treats after Mass. This was true for every monthly Mass except the Ash Wednesday liturgy, where we were to return straight to the classroom without our usual pastry. There were other noticeable changes on Ash Wednesday, and maybe you noticed some of them today: most of the shiny and cool sacramental objects are veiled or even put away, we are not saying “the A word” until Easter, and there are no flowers adorning the altar. All of these changes symbolize the season of Lent.

Lent kicks off today with a focus on confession, repentance and, thankfully, God’s forgiveness!

From the outside, the church appears bleak. Our focus is on the death of Christ and on penance, two things that the world we live in prefers to pretend do not exist. However, I find a comfort in today’s readings, especially from the first reading in which the prophet Joel calls us to “return to [the Lord] with your whole heart/with fasting and weeping, and mourning/…For gracious and merciful is he” (JL 2:12-18). There are several things we can do to return to the Lord: throughout this Lenten season, we are asked to be more mindful with our time, using it to abstain, give alms and above all, pray. I find my prayers are usually simple, short, frequent and real—thinking of areas I have fallen short and how I can rise above these sinful shortcomings, through God’s grace and mercy.

With the focus on sin and forgiveness, I find that it is easy for me to get caught up in the potential feelings of solitude while fasting, weeping and mourning. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “In an acceptable time I heard you,/ and on the day of salvation I helped you” (2 COR 5:20-6:2). The ashes we received today are a nice reminder of God’s saving love. The bearing of ashes is a nice visual way of feeling connected to other Christians and Catholics around the world. Rather than getting caught up in the inside turmoil of feeling sorry for my sins, I’m able to find my own strength by witnessing the strength others display by wearing the mark of the cross on their foreheads, a reminder on the outside of the body what we are feeling on the inside. Rather than getting caught up in the sorrowful suffering associated with Christ’s passion, I’m able to find my own peace by witnessing the peace and unity others display by wearing ashes, a reminder that Ash Wednesday becomes a means to an end, the end being the Resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday.

This past Sunday, Paul questioned “Where, O death, is your victory? / Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 COR 15:54-58). Although the Church does have a somber tone, with the focus on feelings of sin and sadness, death and loss, I feel a large amount of comfort knowing that the Lenten journey we are embarking on, while associated with pain and suffering, is going to lead us to Good Friday and the Cross, where we can see God’s love for us, and eventually to Easter Sunday, where the empty tomb we encounter is full of new life!

Author: Colin Hanley, Senior Counselor


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