Thoughts from Mission

Jerry Kearney Ash Wednesday
February 16, 2015

Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and for Christians it is the beginning of the six-week journey to Easter - a time for reflection about our lives and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Ash Wednesday originated around the year 900 A.D. and is the first day of Lent. It occurs forty days before Good Friday, the day on which Jesus died. The ashes that are used are made by burning the palm fronds which have been saved from the previous year's Palm Sunday. They are then blessed.  Blessed ashes have been used in religious rituals since the time of Moses.
On the Day of Ashes, many Christian denominations continue the ancient custom of marking the foreheads of believers with ashes in the shape of a cross. This cross symbolizes that the person belongs to Jesus Christ who died on a cross. It is also a symbol of the spiritual mark or seal that is put on a Christian in Baptism. Ashes are a biblical symbol of mourning and penance. In ancient times, the practice of penance included fasting, wearing sackcloth, and sitting in dust and ashes. While we no longer wear sackcloth or sit in dust and ashes, the customs of fasting and putting ashes on one's forehead as a sign of mourning and penance have survived to this day.

Ashes also have another significant meaning. They symbolize death and so remind us of our mortality and the need for changes in how we live our lives. If you receive ashes you will hear the minister speak these words: "Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return." Some may use these words instead:  "Turn away from sin, and be faithful to the Gospel."  Traditionally Lent is a time for prayer, fasting and almsgiving (giving to the poor and needy). At its heart, it is a wonderful opportunity for spiritual growth and change of heart.

So what is this “change of heart” all about?

All of our external behavior reflects our interior values.  If I value truthfulness, then I tend to be truthful.  If I am not truthful, it does not follow that I value lying, but having integrity and telling the truth is superseded by something else that I value more, perhaps, in this example, my image in the eyes of others.  In many cases our behaviors are not necessarily intentional but may be done in imitation of the behavior of others.  Doing what everyone else is doing is frequently part of the repertoire of adolescents for whom “fitting in” is such a motivating force.

The fasting to which are invited in Lent is not meant to be some sadistic practice of suffering or deprivation to atone for past misdeeds.  It is not a pseudo-religious plan for weight loss.  It is a conscious attempt to eliminate some of the noise that fills our lives so that we can have time and attention to look into our hearts and see more clearly those drives and desires that underlie our behaviors.  The prophet Joel urges “rend your hearts, not your garments” (Joel 2:13).  He means that we should tear our hearts away from passing and superficial attachments, that we should throw off the baggage of past hurts, imagined slights, and finely cultivated misunderstandings, that we should scrap our tightly held masks and defenses.  The real work of Lent is undertaking an honest assessment of our motives and intentions, an evaluation of where we are and where we really want to be, a realistic appreciation of our relationships with others, followed by perhaps a reordering, recalibration and renewal of our commitment to those values that are of most and lasting importance.

Behaviors change when hearts change.


Jerry Kearney, D.Min.
Vice President, Mission Integration
Saint Thomas Health

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