A reflection from Fr. Paddy in this week’s blog as the beginning of Lent approaches.

Fr. Paddy Byrne has a weekly column in the Nationalist papers.

This column appeared in the edition published 2 March 2011.

Wednesday 9th March is Ash Wednesday and marks the beginning of Lent. Lent is an important time of the year.  A time that coincides with spring.  A season that can offer tremendous hope and renewal in all our lives. A recent service of lament in the Pro-Cathedral Dublin was a very important demonstration of the Church humbly and truthfully seeking pardon for the terrible sins of its past. A small but necessary part of a healing process that will help renew faith communities throughout our country.

We begin the season of Lent with ashes on our foreheads. What is symbolized by this smudging? Perhaps the heart understands better than the head because more people go to church on Ash Wednesday than on any other day of the year, including Christmas. Why are the ashes so popular?

Their popularity, I suspect, comes from the fact that as a symbol, they are blunt, archetypal and speak the language of the soul. Something inside each of us knows exactly why we take the ashes:

“Dust thou art and into dust thou shalt return!”

To put on ashes, to sit in ashes, is to say publicly and to yourself that you are reflective, in a penitential mode, that this is not “ordinary time” for you, that you are grieving some of the things you have done or lost, that some important work is going on silently inside you. You are, metaphorically and really, in the cinders of a dead fire, waiting for a fuller day in your life.

All of this has deep roots. There is something innate to the human soul that knows that, every so often, one must make a journey of descent, be smudged, lose one’s luster, and wait while the ashes do their work. All ancient traditions abound with stories of having to sit in the ashes before one can be transformed.

We all know, for example, the story of Cinderella. This is a centuries-old, wisdom-tale that speaks about the value of ashes. The name, Cinderella, itself already says most of it. Literally it means: “the young girl who sits in the cinders.” Moreover, as the tale makes plain, before the glass slipper is placed on her foot, before the beautiful gown, ball, dance, and marriage, there must first be a period of being humbled. In the story of Cinderella, there is a theology of Lent.

Often before we get the chance to put on the  “glass slippers” we first have to wear the heavy boots of burden and indeed mountain climbing. The good news of the Lenten Story is that our God actively wants to heal each one of us. Life is worth living. Life is a wonderful gift especially when we are fuelled by confidence and renewed hope.

The Church taps into this deep well of wisdom when it puts ashes on our foreheads at the beginning of Lent. Lent is a season for each of us to sit in the ashes, waiting while some silent growth takes place within us, and simply being still so that the ashes can do their work in us.