Picture courtesy of professorjohnston.com
Today is Ash Wednesday. 
Throughout the Christian world, people are getting ready for the Lenten season. Easter is not far away. 
In Victoria, Ash Wednesday conjures up images of bush fires destroying large tracts of land and reducing properties to …. well… ash. 
When I was young I was told that ashes signified where all of us end up. The saying being, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust” I thought this incongruous as it was only recently that the Catholic Church condoned cremations. But I digress. 
Ash Wednesday signifies the stripping away of our external trappings and a period of examining our inner self. Forget what we portray to the outside world, ask ourselves who am I? 
We look in the mirror and we see ourselves. But what do we see? We are left staring at the one staring back at me.
Lent is therefore a period of introspection. But with introspection comes testing oneself. Placing ourselves outside our comfort zone to see how we behave. See if there is room for growth. Dare I say, improvement. 

So during Lent we commit to a course of change, if only temporarily. Some of us will engage in self denial by forgoing everyday pleasures or comforts. Some will go without sweets, or coffee, or their usual trip to the movies etc. 
Today is a day of fasting. 
Others will commit to a certain course of conduct. For example, regular charitable acts, visits to parents, more frequent attendance at Mass etc. 
Others will commit to regular prayer or spiritual readings or something different for the purpose of exploring our inner selves and our faith. 
It’s only forty days. The same period that Jesus fasted in the desert before he was unsuccessfully tempted by the devil. 
I went to Mass today. 
I am always amazed at the large numbers that attend on Ash Wednesday. At a regular weekday Mass the church is probably one third full. Today it was standing room only. I suspect the mystery of Ash Wednesday still resonates with people even though Mass attendances are otherwise dropping off at an alarming rate. 
The priest spoke about Lent being a time of sifting. Sorting through our lives. Getting our hands dirty. Dipping into the manure that surrounds the roots of our lives. 
He explained that “sin” stands for “stuck in narcissism”. Nothing more, nothing less. When we block out others and God because we are only concerned about ourselves. Sin is relational. When I was young we called it selfishness. 
I learned that this year was “the Year of Mercy”. We had to enter the “Mercy Door” at the side of the church rather than the door at the front. I wondered whether the selection of this theme was in any way connected to the scandal facing the Church worldwide. Is the Church seeking mercy?
Read a fascinating article in the church newsletter about confession from a priest’s perspective. Very well written. He made it sound like a heroic act to attend confession. Christians that confessed were trying to restore good relations with God and he was in the privileged position of mediating between God and his people. 
I’ve always been sceptical about confession but this article was inspirational. Made me think of going to confession myself. I found the article on the net and a link is included below. Worth reading. 

I can’t remember an Ash Wednesday Mass where I haven’t bumped into Mark. Mark worked at the Age newspaper with my late uncle Vince. He is one of the few remaining connections to my uncle, so I look forward to seeing him and saying “hello”. But I didn’t see Mark there this year. I even looked for him after Mass. I hope all is well. 

At the end of Mass one has to decide what to do with the ashes smudged on one’s forehead. Most people simply wipe them off. I decided to brave the stares of strangeness by not wiping them off until I got to our building. 
Strange religion …. ashes, blood and flesh, crucifixions, virgin births, resurrection etc. Sounds medieval. 
Whether you are a believer or not there are some great stories in the Judaeo – Christian tradition.