Ash Wednesday is the day that always begins the liturgical season of Lent. On this day, Catholics attend a Mass or a service where ashes are marked on the foreheads of the faithful in the sign of the cross. Sometimes these crosses are clear, but they may look like smudges. For some, a mark on the forehead is an embarrassment, or just an external sign that means nothing more. However, the faithful do not wash off these marks, but wear them proudly at work, and wherever they may be that day. The mark is a symbol, but also a sacramental: a means of grace and encouragement to love God at a deeper level. The ashes represent repentance and a commitment to a permanent change. Ash Wednesday is the start date for all Catholics to recommit to their baptismal call and challenge their spiritual health. An examination of conscious is to be made with a mindful commitment to reform whatever is spiritually ill. To help with this change all are to be held accountable for 40 days, since it takes about 30 day to break a habit. The repentance comes from recognition and gratitude for being given a gift from God that is not deserved. This gift is threefold:
1. It is personal – God allows for an intimate relationship with each person that is incredibly unique to him/her, and the purpose for which he/she has been created.
2. It is universal – God’s gift includes all men, but He never forces it. His gift must be freely chosen.
3. It is merciful – it exceeds the justice that is man's due. Man is not equal to God. As “creatures” man will never be able to work his way up to God’s “level”, and Adam and Eve’s lack of obedience took away what privileges were given. However, through the mercy of the gift of Incarnation, Jesus has given man the opportunity to not forever remain in a state of misery. In fact, by God becoming man, man’s nature was elevated, and through this elevation he is made new.
On Ash Wednesday, the ashes on Catholic foreheads publicly declare that they are sorrowful for the times they do not appreciate the love God has given them, and to also help them remember to shun everything that hinders them from having a healthy relationship with God. It is akin to a spousal relationship, that is, where one person outwardly expresses to his/her spouse, genuine love by the commitment to avoid hurting him/her by offering a probation time for proof of this commitment.
So instead of giving up chocolate, maybe this Ash Wednesday, Catholics might make a commitment to stop acting against their best selves, that is, to instead permanently give up habits that are personal barriers to having a healthy relationship with God.