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Ash Wednesday: It’s easy for us to say we want to return to God but not so easy to do

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Father Dominic Tran sprinkles ashes over the head of a parishioner during Ash Wednesday Mass at Holy Vietnamese Martyrs Church in Norcross, Ga., Feb. 17, 2021. Ash Wednesday is our annual reminder that we are dust, and unto dust we shall return. (CNS photo/Michael Alexander, The Georgia Bulletin)

One of the challenges we Catholics face is the way in which our liturgical calendar almost becomes like white noise in the background.

There is such consistency in our liturgical year that we often don’t give much thought to the changing of the seasons, the feasts, the memorials, the solemnities, as they pass by.

But the seasons are there to help us mark the time, to help us consciously reflect on the mysteries in the life of Christ and in the life of the church.

Ash Wednesday kicks off the season of Lent, during which we prepare for the paschal mystery, the salvific suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus.

The 40-day period of prayer, fasting and almsgiving brings to mind and unites us with the Israelites’ 40 years in the desert, Noah’s 40 days in the ark and Christ’s 40 days in the desert before commencing his public ministry.

We are fallen and we all stray from the path to God. But we know God is forgiving, his mercy endures forever. During this holy and penitential season we are called in a special way to face our sins, to get back on the right path and return to God.

As Pope Francis pointed out in his homily for Ash Wednesday in 2021, “Lent is a journey of return to God.” In this light, the readings for Ash Wednesday are fitting, as they direct us toward the Lord, orient our minds to return to God.

In our first reading, from the prophet Joel, the Lord through his prophet exhorts us to return to him with our whole heart, with fasting, weeping and mourning. We are told that the Lord is gracious and merciful, a refrain we hear again in the responsorial psalm: “Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.”

God’s mercy is everlasting and perfect: All we need to do is accept the forgiveness he offers. Of course this brings to mind the parable of the prodigal son (see Lk 15:11-32). God wants nothing more than to lovingly welcome us back into his embrace.

In the life of the church, and indeed the life of every Catholic, one of the most profound expressions of our journey of return to God is the sacrament of reconciliation.

During the season of Lent, this sacrament receives special attention, as Catholics around the world seek the Lord’s forgiveness in the lead-up to Easter.

Throughout salvation history, we hear again and again about humanity’s failings, God’s mercy and our return to him. The story is the same every time: God makes a covenant with his people, the people break the covenant and God forges a new covenant with them.

The story changes for good at the coming of Christ and his death and resurrection: We are now united to God in a “new and eternal covenant” in the blood of Jesus.

We can still individually mess up our relationship with God, but the sacrament of reconciliation has been given to us to right those wrongs. Like the prodigal son, we need only to accept the forgiveness that is already and always being offered to us.

It is never too early to seek and accept the forgiveness of God. In fact, the time is now.

In his Ash Wednesday homily, Pope Francis emphasized the urgency of returning to God. “In this life, we will always have things to do and excuses to offer, but right now, brothers and sisters, right now is the time to return to God,” he said.

We can see this in the second reading, as well, wherein St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” The only reason we can find to delay seeking God’s mercy is our selfishness, our own attachment to sin.

In his “Confessions,” St. Augustine recounts that he would often pray asking God to make him chaste, “but not yet.” How many of us can relate to this prayer?

It is easy for us to talk about a return to God — and easy for us to say that we want to! But sometimes in practice it is not so easy. We don’t always want what is best for us.

The Israelites’ 40-year excursion in the desert was certainly no easy task, and at times they even yearned for the days of their enslavement in Egypt.

Pope Francis makes reference to this in the same Ash Wednesday homily:

“How difficult it was to leave Egypt! It was more difficult for God’s people to leave the Egypt of the heart, that Egypt they carried with them, than to leave the land of Egypt. It is hard to leave Egypt behind. During their journey, there was an ever-present temptation to yearn for leeks, to turn back, to cling to memories of the past or to this or that idol.

“So it is with us: Our journey back to God is blocked by our unhealthy attachments, held back by the seductive snares of our sins, by the false security of money and appearances, by the paralysis of our discontents.”

Ash Wednesday is our annual reminder that we are dust, and unto dust we shall return. So the time is now to return to God, to turn away from sin and accept his mercy.

We look at the ashes and see the fleeting nature of physical things — “sic transit gloria mundi” (thus passes the glory of the world) — and remember the eternal, unchanging God who wants to welcome us home.

Senz is a freelance writer living in Oklahoma with his family.