Archived Letters from Interim Director Fr. Howell, SJ

Ash Wednesday Calls us to Deeper Realities

Posted by Pat Howell, SJ on Monday, March 4, 2019 at 9:03 AM PST

The prophet Joel trumpets the call to public repentance, "return to me with your whole heart; rend your heart not your garments." Ash Wednesday is a time for abstinence from addictions and preparation for the transformative power of the Easter event. Ordinary life gives way to a deeper realization of God, sustained only by prayer.

Paradoxically, people throng to churches to "get ashes," which has all the power of a holy day and counters just what the Gospel counsels against:  external signs of penitence. 

Ideally, Ash Wednesday evokes the mystery of the death of Jesus, his resurrection and the gift of the Spirit, which we celebrate and embody at the conclusion of the 40 days of Lent.   

Perhaps the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner has captured the meaning of this sign of ashes the best: "When we hear the words, ‘Remember, you are dust,’ we are also told that we are brothers and sisters of the incarnate Lord. In these words we are told everything that we are: nothingness that is filled with eternity; death that teems with life; futility that redeems; dust that is God’s life forever" (The Eternal Year, p. 62).

As a child, we gave up movies and candy for Lent. But now I find it fruitful to address my addiction to the news cycle. So I “give up” reading or viewing any kind of media until noon each day. And by then it’s already “old news,” so I’m not that interested. I find the grace in this simple practice of more attentive prayer and of starting the day with a firmer grounding in the pervasive presence of an all-loving, merciful God.

Other fruitful practices can be to devote one’s self to a weekend retreat or to public lectures on religious or spiritual issues. The ICTC and our partners, of course, specialize in just that. Here are a couple of items I personally recommend, and you’ll find others on our website:

Happy Lent!

Patrick Howell, S.J., interim director
Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture