Bishop Kulick’s Ash Wednesday Reflection
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of our Lenten season. This Liturgical time of the Church’s year is characterized by the traditional disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. It is a time of spiritual preparation for the celebration of the Paschal Mysteries and the Sacred Triduum.
The ancient practice of receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday reminds us of our human mortality and our desire to turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel. It reminds us that we have been created and redeemed for a far greater glory than this world can offer.
Heaping ashes upon the head, rending the garment, and donning sackcloth were all outward signs of penitence in biblical times. Such a display was one of abject humility and repentance, but could also turn into an occasion for infighting and ego-inflation.
This year, due to the pandemic, ashes will be sprinkled on the top of our heads rather than being imposed on our foreheads in the shape of a cross. As Catholics, we are always mindful of sacred traditions which weave together the past and the present. As a priest for more than 28 years and now as a bishop, I am interested to experience this year’s practice for three reasons. First, it is a practice that has roots in the tradition of public repentance in the early Church, when sinners would put on uncomfortable sackcloth and “pour ashes,” sometimes even hot ones, on themselves to prove how truly sorry they were. Second, it is tied into a long ritual tradition in the Church, with accounts of ashes being “sprinkled” onto heads in Lent going back nearly 1,000 years, and it remains the prevailing method for the distribution of ashes in many parts of Europe even to this very day. Finally, I’m approaching the experience with a sense of wonder. As I may find stray ashes in my hair, on my clothes, down my neck or even on my vestments, they might serve as a sacred reminder of my own mortality and even death itself — which has been on many of our minds probably more than ever in the last year. It seems fitting for our Catholic faith, which believes in sacramental signs, to place that before each of us in such a real way this year.
The reception of our ashes this year can be a wonderful opportunity to remind ourselves that the actions of this day “are hidden,” and reminding us, however, “that your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”
My wishes for a blessed and beneficial Lenten season to all of you.
The Most Reverend Larry J. Kulick, JCL
Bishop of Greensburg