Sackcloth and Ashes

March 10, 2019

In the Old Testament, wearing sackcloth and ashes was the sign of doing penance. Beginning in the 11th century, receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday has been a universal Christian practice. In receiving ashes, we confess that we are sinners in need of God’s mercy and ask forgiveness for the various offenses we have committed.

Publicly wearing “sackcloth and ashes” doesn’t necessarily signal repentance, as Jesus points out to us in the Gospel on Ash Wednesday.

Repentance isn’t just about giving up things. A priest was walking along on a dark street. A robber demanded his wallet. As the priest nervously opened his coat to reach for it, the robber saw the Roman collar and immediately apologized, “Forget it, Father. I had no idea you were a priest.” Relieved, the priest took out a cigarette and offered one to the robber, “No, thank you, Father. I gave up smoking for Lent.”

Repentance isn’t simply about feeling sorrow or regret for our sins. Guilt, remorse, and regret are emotions that can imprison us in past mistakes, yet not lead us to change.

“Wearing sackcloth and ashes” are external signs that signify internal repentance – a change of mind and heart, a turning of our face towards God. Both external signs and internal dispositions are required. For example, a young couple may be discussing their intentions to be married, but the proposal ritual is planned and executed to make it official.

Unfortunately, at times we emphasize one and neglect the other. For some, Lent is like a New Year’s resolution, a good time to execute a diet program, but without internal conversion. For others, the internal intentions or beliefs are enough, but without external manifestations, “I am a good person” (I often wonder what criteria is used for this conclusion) or “I believe in God and that is enough. I don’t need to participate in church or belong to a religion.” Internal conversion must manifest in concrete actions.

Temptations encourage us “to turn our face away from God.” The Three Pillars of Lent: prayer, fasting and almsgiving help us keep our face turned toward God.

Prayer is crucial. It is the time we spend with God, allowing our relationship with Him to grow, hearing His voice. Increasing our prayer time during Lent helps us turn toward God and builds our awareness of His presence throughout our day.

Fasting is uncomfortable physically. Yet, the feeling of hunger and denying ourselves sustenance increases our intention of “giving up something for God.” This too helps us “turn our face toward God.”

Almsgiving signals our care and concern for those in need. It is an expression of our gratitude for God’s blessings to us. When we practice these three pillars, we build life-changing habits that keep us focused on God.

Kathryn Richards