Bishop W. Shawn McKnight spoke of the challenge and the motivation of a proper observance of Ash Wednesday.
He articulated the meaning of the dark black ashes he was about to trace in the shape of a cross on the foreheads of Chancery employees while celebrating Mass the morning of the first day of Lent.
“We wear these ashes not to show forth our righteousness, but to acknowledge and manifest without doubt we are SINNERS!” he stated.
“Those are the people who belong in church on Ash Wednesday — SINNERS who recognize our need for Jesus Christ,” he said.
Bishop McKnight drew an important distinction between the only two days of the year on which Catholics in good health are obliged to fast and to abstain from flesh meats: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
“Today is more than abstinence and fast,” he said of Ash Wednesday. “Today and its penitential practices are about our need for compunction.”
On Good Friday, those same practices are oriented toward Jesus — joining in His great Passion, anticipating His great, loving salvation.
The difference is what happens in the 40 days in between.
The bishop pointed out that from the standpoint of the readings for Mass, Lent actually has two parts.
During the first three weeks, the Gospel readings for daily Mass come from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.
“That is because the theme of the first half of the Season of Lent is about my need for conversion, my need to repent,” said Bishop McKnight. “The focus is on us and how unworthy we are.”
During the fourth and fifth weeks of Lent and Holy Week, the focus of the Gospel readings turns away from sinful individuals and toward the person of Jesus — “that He alone can save us!” the bishop proclaimed.
The two points of emphasis are clear and intentional.
“Jesus only saves those who recognize their need for His salvation,” Bishop McKnight noted, “so we put ourselves in that state so we can make sure we recognize what great need we have for His mercy.”
He cautioned against thinking that the penitential practices of Lent have anything to do with obtaining salvation on their own.
“Only Christ brings salvation,” he reiterated.
In the prayer of blessing of the ashes, the bishop acknowledged that God does not delight in the death of sinners but in their conversion.
“Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return,” he and Father Stephen Jones, who concelebrated the Mass, repeated while distributing ashes to each person.