Ash Wednesday is the start of Lent. It is the start of that great period that leads up the Paschal Triduum (Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil). It is marked by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
I don't know about you, but there comes a point, almost every Lent, where I seem to forget the point, where prayer, fasting, and almsgiving become ends in themselves and not a means to something more important.
The Collect for Ash Wednesday provides an answer for what the end, what the point, of all of our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving should be: "Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian service, so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils, we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint…"
We do these things so that when we do battle against evil, we may be armed with self-restraint. Well, okay that sounds great, but how will self-restraint help us in the battle we do with evil? What does fasting and Christian service have to do with any of that? The answer is simple but often difficult: Fasting and Christian service give us the space to remember that this world is not all about us as individuals, it is not about selfish ambition, rather, this world is God's good creation and we are called to be caretakers of it and all the life in it.
Evil and sin happen when we, in our human brokenness, try to be like or better than God and our neighbor. We constantly have to battle the temptation to think we are better than those who, like us, are created good by God. Self-restraint, not acting out on those desires, is a way to refocus, to remind ourselves that we are not better than our neighbors, no matter who they are.
Our Lenten sacrifices are not meant to make us miserable, they are not meant to be things we do "just because", they are things we do to remind ourselves that we are privileged and that we have a duty to care for the created world. Fasting is a physical reminder that we have much more than we need. It is also a reminder that we are not God, we have needs and when they are not met we feel it. Christian service is the logical outgrowth of fasting. Reminded of our humanness, we are also reminded of those around us who may be in need. We are called to action, we are called to battle the spiritual evil of thinking that the other, be it a person, plant, or animal, doesn't matter or matters less than we do.
Lent gives us a chance to better remember our broken, sinful tendencies. It gives us a chance to fight against those tendencies, it gives us a chance to do better, to be better, to be who God calls us to be. And Ash Wednesday is the start of that fight.
The wonderful thing about Ash Wednesday and Lent is that they happen every year. That means that when we inevitably fall short, when we forget why we fast, when we fall back into sin, God gives us chance after chance, to start again, to reset and to grow more closely to Him.
Ash Wednesday is the starting gun for Lent, it is our chance to reflect more deeply on God's call to us to care for those around us, and it is a promise that we have, by the grace of God, the tools to do battle.
Rebecca Spellacy is the Associate Director of Liturgy for the Office of Formation for Discipleship in the Archdiocese of Toronto.