“You’re filthy! Wash your
hands before supper.”
Those words have been
said by myriad mothers to millions
of children. Ash Wednesday marks
the beginning of Lent, the time
when Holy Mother Church reminds
her children to clean their souls before
the Easter feast.
Wearing ashes—holy and blessed
dirt, but dirt nonetheless—on my
face is a reminder that my soul
needs to be scrubbed clean. Fasting
is one means the Church uses to
purify its children: a sanctified bristle
brush for the Holy Spirit to use.
It scours the soul and helps clean off
particularly stubborn sins and faults.
Dust and Ashes
When I receive ashes, the priest traces
the sign of the cross on my forehead as
a mark of ownership by Christ. Ashes
remind me that I have sinned. In biblical
times, it was common to do penance
by wearing sackcloth and ashes.
Ashes also remind me that death comes
for all, rubbing mortality in my face:
ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
But isn’t wearing ashes just a public
display, the kind frowned upon by Our
Lord? What about the command,
“Wash your face and comb your hair”
(see Matthew 6:17), when fasting?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Jesus’ call to conversion and
penance...does not aim first at outward
works, ‘sackcloth and ashes,’ fasting
and mortification, but at the conversion
of the heart...” (#1430).
But Catholicism is caught up in the
corporeal, concrete and sometimes
gritty reminders of spiritual truths. This
interior dimension is expressed in exterior
What the soul believes, the body
expresses. Wearing ashes signifies
repentance for sin. Fasting is a reminder
from the soul to the body that there is
more to life than food.
Each year, my family discusses what
each person is giving up for Lent. To
balance self-denial, my parents emphasized
that we also should do something—an extra prayer and a good
deed. Fasting is just going hungry if
the emptiness is left void; fasting is
a way to make room for God. We
avoid food to awaken a hunger for
Christ, the Bread of Life.
Fasting is a lesson in self-discipline.
As a child, I often gave up
chocolate. Before we were married,
my husband and I gave up kisses
on Fridays and all through Lent.
Recently I’ve given up complaining
about dishes and diapers.
These are not bad things that I
had to forgo (except complaining),
but reminders that God is more
important than my desires. Rather
than bowing to the belly god at the
cold shrine of refrigeration, fasting puts
things in perspective.
Finally, Lenten fasting is an imitation
of Jesus, who prepared for his ministry
with 40 days of fasting and prayer.
When we fast, we draw near to the crucified
Christ. We can offer up our
hunger to him who said, “I thirst,” for
the salvation of souls.
Perhaps it shows the wild balance
of Catholicism that the greatest feast is
preceded by a great fast. We rejoice
more fully when joy follows trial, when
sweetness follows sacrifice. We value
more what is bought with suffering.
Lenten fasting is part of the soul’s
preparation not only for Easter, but
also for the heavenly banquet, the everlasting
Next: Stations of the Cross