‘Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.’ said Leo Tolstoy. The Season of Lent is a wonderful time for us do just that: changing oneself, not so much the world. ‘You must be the change you wish to see in the world,’ said Mahatma Gandhi.
The season of Lent reminds of some symbols that lead us to changing ourselves individually. I was personally fascinated by the use of ash as a symbol of our repentance during the start of this season, namely, Ash Wednesday.
“Remember, man, you are dust and to dust you will return” (Gn 3:19). This reminder is given to those who are signed with ashes at the beginning of the Lenten season. This ancient action of wearing ashes has traditionally signified lamentation and repentance (see 2 Sam 13:19, Esth 4:1, Job 42:6, 1 Macc 3:47, 4:39, Lam 2:10, Mt 11:21).This symbol speaks dramatically, even today as we enter into the season of lent, of both the morbid reality of being human and the joyful promise made to all God’s own.
Ashes symbolize sorrow and penitence. The early church ritualized this for those who had committed a serious or “capital” sin. These “penitents” would wear a penitential garment and have ashes sprinkled on them. Then they would be excluded from celebrating the Eucharist until the Easter Vigil. (Note that a person could be a penitent only once in a lifetime.) Although the order of penitents had declined, by 1091 all the faithful were encouraged to take on the practice of wearing ashes at the beginning of lent. Today we continue this practice as an expression of “our human condition as affected by sin” (Ceremonial of Bishops, 253). We mourn for our sin and ignorance that has kept us from keeping faithful to our baptismal promises. We are marked with ashes as a sign of our commitment to “turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel” (Mk 1:15).
On the subject of overcoming sin, a common misunderstanding among Christians is that Jesus has overcome sin on our behalf, and that His grace covers our sins. However, some two thousand years ago, Paul wrote: “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not!” Do you believe in complete, personal victory over sin in your Christian life?
To understand how a Christian can live without committing sin, it is crucial to understand what the Gospel of God is: Jesus was a man like us (See Romans 1:1-4). He was tempted in all points like us, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15-16). As Christians, we are called to true freedom from sin. Understanding what sin is, and the difference between temptation and sin , is also the foundation to understanding how to overcome sin. The Holy Spirit will lead us and give us power to bring about the change that is needed to overcome sin.
We need to understand that all things take place by change within ourselves. We are often worried about losing many things that we enjoy especially during this season. If we can find meaning in giving up and losing.
Again we are made to understand through the words of Marcus Aurelius that, ‘Loss is nothing else but change, and change is nature’s delight.’ Of course we may not be able to change our sinful past, but we will only be able to take control of the blessed future. That can happen only by losing ourselves and not by accumulating money and riches.
We see people change in order to survive. The change we are called to effect in ourselves during this lent is not merely for survival; but, for surviving in a grace filled state which will be the result of the change we effect in ourselves, namely, losing ourselves to the petty earthly desires.
Thinking about survival one needs to remember that responding to situations is an essential part of our survival in a grace-filled state. ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change,’ said Clarence Darrow. We need to realize that mere intellectual activity will not help us to change. Instead, we need to respond to the change that has to be effected in this season.
Only the wisest and the stupidest do not change. Therefore. we need change of heart in order to improve ourselves. Winston Churchill said, ‘To improve is to change. To be perfect is to change often.’ Those of us who wish to bring about a perfect change must bring about more changes in their lives.
As Anatole France said, ‘All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind is part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter into another.’ Let us die to our old sinful nature. That is what the ash symbolizes. Only from the ashes can we start again something totally new; or, else, we will still be holding on to something of the old. Only by dying we can be born to eternal life.