Ash Wednesday is in five days and starts Lent. Have you ever noticed that many people observe Ash Wednesday and Lent who aren't even regularly practicing Catholics or Lutherans. I think this is an indication of how deeply meaningful these rituals are.
Things like Ascension Thursday, the Feast of the Assumption, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, though important, haven't reached into the average human psyche to touch us deeply. There are no sacramentals, they are not closely associated with a season, so it is only the obedient or the spiritually attuned who observe those Holy Days.
But Ash Wednesday and Lent are approachable enough that even non Catholics participate in it, even some atheists. Everyone feels the approach of spring. People wish to mark this important time some how. Many lingering pre-Christian practices associated with Easter still abound in our Christian celebration, even the name is pre-Christian.
But for the Christian this is the most important time of the year. A time that sacrifice feels appropriate. Our biological clocks tell something big is coming and we must be ready.
When I was young, having ashes smeared on my forehead was difficult for me to accept. It was disturbing. It is meant to be disturbing. Death is disturbing, especially to the young. As winter lingers at this time of year, nature looks death in the face. The end of winter is in sight, but food is still scarce in the wild and even in many human communities. Until crops and plants start producing we are still in a time of scarcity. Sacrificing was once a necessity of survival for many. We still feel the need for sacrifice and want to participate in facing death, surviving and helping others to survive by our generosity.
For the Christian, joining in the struggle to face death, dying, then resurrecting as the earth also is reborn is truly the most spiritual time of year and brings us closer to our Lord.
What commitment to sacrifice, prayer and/or alms giving are you going to make in this time of preparation?