MANILA, Philippines — Ash Wednesday signals the start of the Lenten season. On this day, Filipinos flock to the churches to have a priest mark the sign of the cross on their foreheads. This is a proud sign of faith for many, but not everyone truly understands the meaning of this rite.
Fr. Ritche T. Salgado, O.Carm., Director of the Carmelite Center for Social and Pastoral Communications and Parochial Vicar of SagradaFamilia Parish of the Diocese of Novaliches, explained the deeper meaning of the tradition. “Ash Wednesday is the start of Lent. We mark this by having our foreheads marked with a cross of ashes. Marking one’s forehead is a symbol of ownership and to have our foreheads marked with the cross means that we are owned by Christ.”
'Life is short'
Fr. Ritche explains that the ashes used for Ash Wednesday are from the burned palms blessed during the previous year’s Palm Sunday. While marking the sign of the cross, the priest will often say, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
“The whole rite allows us to reflect on how short our lives are, calling for us to repent our sins and make an effort to change our lives, to live according to how Christ would want us to live as his followers – that is to live in love, in loving God and loving our neighbors," he said.
The other formula used in the putting of the ashes is, "Repent and believe in the Gospel." This, Fr. Ritche said, has been Christ’s message after John the Baptist was put in prison (Mark 1:15). “The first one is from Genesis 3:19, when God punished Adam and Eve for disobedience and for submitting to the desire of the devil. It reminds us to be humble and be dependent on God’s providence. By ourselves we are nothing, but we are something because of Christ.”
Fasting and abstinence
Lent is that time of the Catholic Christian liturgical calendar when we remember and reflect on the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ, explained Fr. Ritche.
“With this we are expected and encouraged to reflect on our lives, in our progress in living out the teachings of Christ as His followers. It is an opportunity for renewal on our commitment to follow Him.”
Traditionally, total fast is observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, while on Fridays of Lent, we abstain from meat. There are exemptions for some people, such as the elderly and the sick.
“We do this as a means of sacrifice, when we give up something that is important to us. Meat somehow represents luxury and so, it is but the natural choice to give this up in favour of simpler and cheaper food like vegetables and fish," Fr. Ritchie elaborated.
He pointed out, though, that it would be pointless if we would feast on lobster and other expensive seafood during Lent, justifying that it is not meat. “The heart of the practice is for us to have simpler meals on certain days during the Lenten season. This sacrifice is meant to help us in our spiritual journey to live a life faithful to the teachings of Christ.”
Lent through the modern lens
Gen X would be the last generation to remember a quiet Holy Week spent at home, with TV and radio silence. These days, streaming services offer a source of entertainment, and the Holy Week break is an opportune time for a road trip, thereby diluting the solemnity of the occasion.
“The problem with this actually is the lack of understanding on why we should be making these sacrifices during Lent. People believe this to be an opportune time for them to rest and recreate, and so they go for a vacation so they can bond as friends or as a family or even catch some much needed ‘me’ time,” Fr. Ritche observed.
He added that it might have something to do with the word "sacrifice," which is kind of heavy and difficult. He then suggests reframing it into "thanksgiving" because Lent after all is also a way for us to remember Christ’s gift of life for us, so we can truly show our gratitude and appreciation for such a beautiful gift.
“So if we plan to have a vacation, why not include in it visits to different churches for VisitaIglesia or to some pilgrimage site where you can enrich your spiritual life? It is a wonderful way to bond with family and friends, as well," he said.
According to Fr. Ritche, there are the three obligations that we are expected to perform during Lent – pray, fast, and give. “We should pray for those in need, we should fast and not indulge in anything luxurious, and we should give and share what we have to those in need. Fasting is a wonderful way for us to share, that which we give up by fasting we can use to share with those in need.”
To help enrich your spiritual life this Lenten season, he shared some guide questions to reflect on: “How am I living out the teachings of Christ? How am I as a Christian? How am I showing my love for neighbor? How am I allowing myself to be a channel of God’s blessing for the poor, the vulnerable, the abused, the prisoners, those who are in the margins of our society?”
As for other things that can be done apart from fasting and abstaining from meat, he prompted, “It’s really about giving up something luxurious that you are used to enjoying. Giving up some of your recreation or free time to serve the least of our brothers and sisters would be a good sacrifice.”
We can also sacrifice certain attitudes that have become a “comfort zone” for us, he said.
“Like pagtataray or anger, which can be defense mechanisms to avoid being hurt. Make yourself vulnerable, so that Christ would be able to perform his miracles in you and through you. Just remember that a sacrifice is not a sacrifice if it does not hurt. So if you are simply giving your extra, it’s not exactly a sacrifice.”
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