Branded with a cross of ashes

Given by Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde on Ash Wednesday at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington.

This morning, we gather as a community to celebrate the Holy Eucharist. And on this Ash Wednesday, which inaugurates the Lenten season, we also gather to be branded: branded by a symbol of a cross of ashes, a symbol that signifies the beginning of an important journey.

Our cross of ashes is a sign to the world that we are making a commitment, that we are undertaking the campaign of Lent. The ashes are a sign of our human condition. They are dust - fragile and easily swept away into nothingness. We, too, are fragile, We, too, are will someday be swept away, for we are only passing through this life. The cross shows everyone that we are followers of Jesus Christ, that we are sinners in need of a Savior, that we are men and women who find the Way, the Truth and the Life in the Son of God, Who suffered and died to forgive us of our sins and Who rose from the dead that we might have eternal life.

Today, signed with an ashen cross, we make explicit something that has been ours since our Baptism. For it was at our Baptism that we were first marked with the cross, traced on our foreheads by the priest or deacon, and then by our parents and godparents. With that sign we were claimed for Christ, and then cleansed by the saving waters. The cross we received that day remains hidden from the world, but today we make it visible. Today, we show the world that Christ has claimed us as His own.

Make no mistake: We are making a radical act. It is not something to be taken lightly. Yes, it is radical because we will get odd looks from some people we encounter when we leave this church. But more importantly, it is radical because with these ashes, we remind ourselves and all who see us that we are followers of Jesus Christ. With these ashes, we are a sign of contradiction. The culture around us is not comfortable recognizing its own sinfulness, yet with these ashes, we show all who will see us that we are sinners in need of a Savior. The culture around us seeks to find its fulfillment in the things of the world, but with these ashes, we proclaim that the world is passing away, and our true home is in heaven.

Therefore, in the midst of winter, we begin our Lenten journey marked by these ashes, a journey that will lead us to the new life of spring with the Resurrection of Our Lord on Easter. During this journey, we will seek, with the help of God, to "take up battle against spiritual evils … armed with the weapons of self restraint" (Collect of Ash Wednesday), the weapons of fasting and almsgiving, strengthened by prayer. In today's Gospel, Jesus gives us these three "works of Lent": prayer, penance and fasting, and almsgiving.

Through fasting and penance, we seek to curb our worldly desires and live more fully for God. Through almsgiving, we offer mercy to our neighbors from our bounty, which reflects the mercy of Our Lord in the many gifts He gives to us. Through our prayer, we unite ourselves more closely to Our God, our Ultimate End and the source of our hope and joy.

Today, our ashen crosses are the signs of our faith, announcing to the world the One in Whom we live and move and have our being. Tomorrow, when our ashes have been washed away, may we continue to live in such a way that others may still know that we are marked by Jesus Christ, through lives of charity, simplicity, prayer and sacrifice.

Therefore, when we leave this Church and look in the mirror, let us remind ourselves just what that cross of ashes represents. We are not just receiving a passing sign of our faith. No, today our Lenten journey has begun. So we go with the courage and strength of God, as living signs of His mercy and of His salvation.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016