In a few minutes, we will be marked with ashes.  

What, exactly, does that mean?  We know historically they are a sign of penance and atoning for sin. They mark us and they mark the beginning of Lent.

But what about those ashes? What does this really mean?

Well first, ashes mean that we are Catholic Christians. They show what we believe, who we follow.

On this day, we don’t wear our faith on our sleeves, but on our foreheads. As St. Paul said, we are “ambassadors for Christ.”

But these ashes also mean we are not perfect ambassadors.

When we get ashes, we aren’t saying we are holy. On the contrary, we’re saying we have a lot more to do to become holy. We are penitents. So, during Lent we fast, abstain, sacrifice, and pray. We give — giving alms for the poor and giving of ourselves and giving up things that we enjoy, to focus less on this world and more on the next.

I once compared our experience of Lent to renovating a house on HGTV. We are all fixer-uppers, I said. We’re trying to fix up our souls. The ashes tell the world that there is work going on here. We are all walking construction sites now— works in progress.

What do ashes mean?

These ashes mean we need to be held accountable. They say to the world: Keep me honest. It gives our friends and family the opportunity to say in a few weeks, “Hey, I saw you wearing ashes on Ash Wednesday. How come you’re still a jerk?”

I just tell people, “I’m working on it!”

These ashes say we will not settle for what we are but live in hope for what we can be. And what we want to be is more humble, more holy, more patient, more loving.

More like Jesus.

It isn’t easy. If it was easy, everyone would do it. But this isn’t just something you can do overnight, or even over 40 days. It’s the work of a lifetime. These ashes say we know that. But we are beginning.

What do these ashes mean?

These ashes mean we are mortal. In a time when we like to not face the reality of death, we announce this very clearly: We will die. They say to all who see them, “I don’t have forever. I am dust. And one day, I will be dust again.”

That is the bottom line for every one of us, our common denominator. It makes what we are about to do matter even more.

When we distribute ashes, I have the option of using one of two short phrases: “Repent and return to the Gospel” or “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.”

I always use the second one. I’ll tell you why.

Every Sunday, our message from this pulpit is, in one way or another, “Repent and return to the Gospel.”

But once a year, it’s good to be reminded that each of us has an expiration date.  

What will we do before then?

What will we do with this immeasurable gift, the gift of life? How will we spend the time we have been given?

How can we more closely follow Christ?

What do ashes mean?

They mean we will try to give more, bear more, love more. Like Jesus said in the Gospel last Sunday:  we try to walk the extra mile for others.

The Catholic evangelist and author Marcel LeJeune posted something on his blog this week that offers suggestions: 40 unique ideas for Lent. It had some great ideas. Want to do something different this Lent?

Pray and fast for one person every day of Lent. It might be someone you know. It might be a stranger. Sacrifice something for them.

Pray a rosary every day for someone who has hurt you.

Write a letter to a different person each day, telling them what they mean to you.

Volunteer at a shelter, soup kitchen or retirement home.

If you have a long commute, spend it in silent prayer.

Accept your cross. We all have one. Some have several. In the morning, pray about what cross God has given you, then embrace it in faith as the will of God, as best you can.

Pray for our devastated world. The ashes we wear remind us our world has been scorched with pain and suffering. Pray every day for victims of violence. Victims of abortion. School shootings. War. Pray for Bishop David O’Connell, a man of peace who was shot and killed in Los Angeles last weekend. Pray for all those suffering because of the war in Ukraine.

I preached last weekend about beginning Lent by loving our enemies and praying for our persecutors.

Pray for Vladimir Putin.

Those are for starters. I’m sure you can think of others.

So, what do these ashes mean?   What is their real power?

I think of that first word in the prayer I say when I distribute them. Remember.

They mean we remember.

We remember what we are. We remember what we will be. And with that in our hearts, we hope and pray for what we can become.

Long after this day, after the ashes have been washed down the drain and we’ve started to feel like nothing would be better than a hamburger for lunch on Friday, we need to remember.

Remember today.

Remember that you came to this church with your forehead clean and you left marked. Wearing ashes. Every one of us will walk out those doors with a mission: to grow in holiness by prayer, by fasting, by giving up what we love so we can give to the poor.

We are people with a mission.

What do ashes mean?

Ultimately, they mean we are undertaking a great work — THE great work of drawing closer to Jesus Christ and trying to become saints.

Let the great work begin.