Posted on Wednesday 10 February 2016
By Ben Smith
Today is Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the season of Lent. It is a season of penance, reflection, fasting and practising works of mercy, which prepares us for Christ’s Resurrection on Easter Sunday.
The ashes marked on people’s foreheads on this day symbolise penance and contrition and are also a reminder that God is gracious and merciful to those who call on Him with repentant hearts.
This year the Diocese of Parramatta’s Family & Life Office has developed a Family Lenten/Easter Program for parishes and schools, Cleanse our Hearts with Your Mercy. In the section on Ash Wednesday, our hearts are the focus of the program and the readings for today.
The first reading (Joel 2:12-13)
“Even now, says the LORD,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the LORD, your God.”
This reading emphasises how the Lord wants us to worship Him with our whole heart. He calls on us to “rend your heart, not your garments”, which indicates that the Lord is more interested in the dispositions of our hearts deep down in our souls over and above any external actions we take.
This theme is reiterated in the Gospel (Matt 6: 1-6, 16-18) in which Jesus teaches:
“Your Father, who sees all that is done in secret, will reward you.”
Jesus encourages His disciples to purify the intentions of their hearts when they are praying, fasting or giving alms. These actions are meant to lead us closer to God, not gain us praise from our peers.
This process of purification is also alluded to by the Psalmist when they prayed:
“Thoroughly wash me from my guilt and of my sin cleanse me.” (Ps 51:2)
“A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me.” (Ps 51:10)
The program focuses on cleansing our hearts through an experience of Christ’s mercy. This mercy will be experienced by reflecting on: the Word of God for each week of Lent, the works of mercy in which we experience Christ in the poor, in the saints of mercy that we encounter in each of the five weeks and, finally, in the Passion of Christ, which we will experience like an eyewitness.
This experience will be sharpened through attendance at Mass, praying the Rosary, reflecting on the Stations of the Cross, contributing to Caritas Australia’s Project Compassion Lenten Appeal and especially in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. This program is designed to be a journey for the whole family to experience in your home and in your parish community.
Ash Wednesday is a day of fasting (for those aged 18-59) and abstinence from meat (for those aged over 14). When fasting, a person is permitted to eat one full meal. Two smaller meals may also be eaten. Fridays in Lent are also an opportunity to abstain from eating meat. The booklet includes a series of vegetarian recipes.
As a family, reflect on how our hearts can let us down. What would we like God’s help with this Lent to help us love God with our whole heart and our neighbor as ourselves?
Each family member should write these things down on a small piece of paper. Once everyone has finished, put these pieces of paper in a metal container and burn them. Place these ashes in a jar and keep the jar in a prominent place. As the paper is burning, recite this Penitential prayer by St Ambrose of Milan:
O Lord, who has mercy upon all,
take away from me my sins,
and mercifully kindle in me
the fire of thy Holy Spirit.
Take away from me the heart of stone,
and give me a heart of flesh,
a heart to love and adore Thee,
a heart to delight in Thee,
to follow and enjoy Thee, for Christ’s sake.
A pdf of the program booklet Cleanse our Hearts with Your Mercy can be downloaded from the Family & Life office website.
To obtains a printed copy of the booklet, please send an email to email@example.com
For a listing of Ash Wednesday Mass times and Reconciliation during Lent in parishes across the Diocese of Parramatta click here
Ben Smith is Director of the Diocese of Parramatta’s Family & Life Office.