The Season of Lent

Dear Friends,

Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness; in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense. (Ps. 51:3).  The great “Miserere” psalm which decries the David’s sin after having been reproofed by the prophet Nathan (cf. 2 Sam. 11-12), is prescribed by the Church to set the tone for the Season Lent on Ash Wednesday.   David’s wickedness was spurned in his thoughts as he lustfully observed Bathsheba and plotted how he would use his power to hash out his shameful desire.   It points to a deeper reality dissecting the inception of sin.   All sin begins in our thoughts, all temptations dwell in our desires.  It is here that a true conscience begins to direct us toward the good.    Here we can understand yet another perspective of why ashes are placed on the head of the penitent.   The practice of using ashes is based on biblical references of penitents wearing sack cloth and sprinkling ashes on their heads.  In the first book of Maccabees the Jewish rebels practice this penitential custom prior to engaging in battle.    In the tradition of the Church ashes are sprinkled on the crown of the head, a practice still used in parts of Europe, especially at the Vatican.   In the U.S., the custom of placing ashes on the forehead developed and in current practice.  

Here we can see the practice pointing toward the inception of sinful thoughts and desires.   It is as if the ashes point to the traumatic wound sin leaves on the soul, by visualizing the venomous effect of the soul symbolized on the body.     All too often we consider the ashes as some sort of “protection” or superstitious symbol that one must participate in.   This explains why so many Catholics are more devoted to Ash Wednesday than they are to the true solemnities of Christmas and Easter.   It also explains why so many are so determined to get their ashes that attending Mass is sometimes secondary or even unnecessary in their pursuit of ashes.  The ashes smeared on our forehead are reminders to us and those who see them, that we must take a serious and honest look at our sins, rather than possessing some sort of spiritual power.   They are signs to us to be honest about our sinful patterns and habits.  To be honest, we must make a true examination of conscience which forces us to examine what we think and how we think.   How often our thoughts are uncharitable, degrading and offensive.   How often they plot evil, or harbor hatred.   How often our thoughts create reasons to hold on to grudges or deny the goodness of God.    Yet, because we may not act on our thoughts, some would think that they did nothing wrong.   However, our thoughts betray the true state of our soul.   To repent from our sins and to amend our life, it begins with our thoughts and desires.   David tried to hide his sin, pretending as if it was merely an accident that Uriah the Hittite was killed.   Yet God knew the deepest thoughts and desires of his mind.   Nathan confronted him and exposed his lie and sin.   God wants us clean house this Lent.   He wants us to be truly honest with ourselves and begin to purify our thinking, as St. John of the Cross puts it “accuse ourselves rather than excuse ourselves” (Dark Night of the Soul).  In that we begin the true conquest of our sins.   Allow this Season of Lent to truly challenge you, allow it to confront you with the truth and reality of your way of thinking and true desires so that, through the greatness of God’s compassion, he can “wipe out” our sin.   

Fr. Vásquez

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