One of my favorite tasks of the year is the burning of old palms to make ashes for Ash Wednesday. While I will admit that part of the joy comes from the fact that the task is fun, there is also a more profound symbolism that is present. It is striking that the palms, which once were used to joyfully celebrate Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem are now used as a symbol of our humility and repentance. Although convenient, the physical connection between our palms and ashes is more than just recycling, but also an important symbol of the link between our praise and adoration of God and our desire for repentance and mercy.
Although joyful adoration and humble repentance seem to be two very different attitudes, they really work together in our life of faith. Our praise and adoration of God help us to recognize God’s surpassing goodness, love, and grace in our lives. Giving praise to God reminds us of His primacy in our lives and aids us in following His will. It often also reminds us of the many ways we have fallen short in living out His will, of the many ways our life has not glorified His. It’s in recognizing God’s primacy and our sinfulness that true humility is born. Humility comes not from simply being meek or passive, but in recognizing who we are before the Lord.
That humble awareness of our sinfulness leads us to our desire for repentance, to atone for our sins and open ourselves to God’s mercy and compassion. In many ways the solemn repentance of Ash Wednesday is the natural result of our joyful praise on Palm Sunday. We repent, we fast, we abstain, not because we enjoy misery, but because we desire to be in a deeper and fuller relationship with our Lord. Our praise and our repentance work together to lead us to understand better who God is in our life and how to live His life in this world. As we prepare to begin the holy season of Lent by marking ourselves with ashes, may we remember that our repentance is ultimately a sign of our joy and is part of that everlasting song of praise we offer to God.
Fr. Brian Ching, C.S.C., is associate pastor at St. Joseph Catholic Church in South Bend, Ind. He is originally from Flushing, N.Y., and is a graduate of Holy Cross High School. He entered seminary while a student at the University of Notre Dame. He professed Final Vows in 2012 and was ordained to the priesthood in 2013.