By Michael Gresham
The Texas Catholic
Ash Wednesday marks the start of a time of opportunities.
An opportunity to celebrate faith. An opportunity to acknowledge sins. An opportunity to ask forgiveness. And an opportunity to prepare for Easter.
All those opportunities, Bishop Edward J. Burns said, help the faithful grow in their love of God.
“With Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent, this is an opportunity for people to move closer to an intentional prayer life. It is a chance whereby people can bind themselves to the Lord, acknowledging what our Lord, Jesus Christ, sacrificed for all our brothers and sisters,” Bishop Burns said. “This truly is an opportunity for many people in the Church and, as the shepherd of this diocese, I cherish this time.”
Prior to becoming a bishop – first in Juneau, Alaska, and then in Dallas, Bishop Burns was a priest of the Diocese of Pittsburgh in western Pennsylvania where he had the opportunity to serve as a chaplain for penitentiaries. The bishop said serving as a prison chaplain on Ash Wednesdays provided him some of his most powerful memories of the solemn day.
“We had a whole army of ministers on hand, giving ashes to everyone, as anybody can receive ashes,” Bishop Burns recalled. “What was interesting is at the end of the day, guards and prisoners were looking at each other with crosses on their forehead. It was a powerful moment – one when everyone could acknowledge that we do need the grace of God, we do need each other’s help, and we all should strive to be holy and faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.”
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Lenten season, offering the faithful an opportunity to prepare for Easter, according to Bishop Burns.
“We recognize in the Christian faith and especially in our Catholic tradition that our Lord, Jesus Christ, came to us because we are sinners,” the bishop said. “Our God is a jealous god. He wants to claim us as His own and He does not want us to go astray therefore He sent his only Son to die for our sins and to claim us as His own.”
With the start of this penitential season, Bishop Burns said people have the opportunity to look at their own sinfulness so as to better themselves in preparation for the celebration of Easter.
“We call to mind the times we have sinned, what we have done, and even moments that we have failed to act as Christians,” Bishop Burns explained. “The 40 days of Lent prepare us for Easter. It offers an opportunity to increase our relationship with Jesus Christ, to bring him closer to us, and to keep our eyes fixed on Him…focused on Him.”
Noting that the ashes used on Ash Wednesday come from the burnt palms that were used the previous Palm Sunday, the bishop explained how the symbolism is a vital part of the Catholic tradition.
“The palms are saved, they are burnt, and they are placed on our forehead in the sign of the cross to remind us that we have to be sorrowful for our sins,” Bishop Burns said. “There is also a reminder that we’re dust and we’re going to return to dust. We are mindful that our time here is finite and that we need to be mindful of that. It serves as a good meditative time for us to get back in line with our Lord, our God, and to be who He calls us to be: His children.”
The bishop said the tradition of “giving something up for Lent” also serves an opportunity for people to grow in their faith.
“The spiritual exercise that comes with Lent is that whatever we give up, whatever we have saved by giving it up, then hopefully you will find someone in need and give it to them,” he explained. “What Scripture does is it calls us to almsgiving. It calls us to give to the poor. And so, we better ourselves during the process, but we also better someone else, too.”
Beginning with Ash Wednesday and the start of the Lenten season, the bishop said Catholics also have the opportunity to participate in another sacred Catholic tradition: the Stations of the Cross, which begin on that Friday after Ash Wednesday.
“It was always the tradition of those early Christians in Jerusalem that they would remember what happened on Good Friday by praying at different spots along the way where He fell, when Veronica wiped His face, and Simeon lifted the cross, etc.,” said Bishop Burns, adding that as the Church grew, however, Christians elsewhere in the world couldn’t go to Jerusalem so the Stations of the Cross in the church were created. “Then they would move from one station to the other in the sanctuary because, even though they weren’t in Jerusalem, the Lord was with them and they were there with the Lord in prayer. So, for us Catholics, the 14 stations become a very real way of following the Lord.”
During the season of Lent, Catholics also are called to take part in the sacrament of reconciliation, or confession.
“It’s a definitely a part of the Lenten practices and one that is an important aspect of our Catholic tradition,” Bishop Burns said. “We are mindful that Jesus said to Peter, ‘Peter, you are rock and, on this rock, I will build my church…Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them…’ With confession, we have the opportunity to come before the Lord and to say, ‘I’m sorry for all my sins.’”
This Lenten season, the Diocese of Dallas once again will sponsor “The Light is ON for You,” an initiative in which all parishes throughout the diocese are open for quiet prayer and confession. This year, “The Light is ON for You” opportunities will be March 29 and April 5. Check with local parishes for times.