A little smudge of ash from last year’s palms to remind us that the victory is already won; a fast to clear our minds and focus our hearts; and the sense of a fresh beginning as we turn back to the Lord from whom we have strayed: Ash Wednesday is here. With it comes a wonderful freedom. Whatever we have decided to ‘do’ for Lent, we do with the joy of the Holy Spirit (RB 49.6). We are indeed ‘looking forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing,’ as St Benedict says (RB 49.7). The particularities of our penances melt into insignificance beside the fact that the Lord has invited us to make a Lenten journey with him and to him. He has spoken to us the words of the prophet Hosea, ‘I will lead her into the wilderness, and there I will speak to her heart.’
We know that Lent will be hard. It will have its longeurs, times when we feel empty, tempted to abandon everything. We shall have some spectacular failures. Some of them we may not even register because it is when we think we are doing ‘all right’ that we are most in danger of getting things wrong. But it won’t matter provided we hold fast to this simple truth: God desires our love more than anything else. He is in charge of our Lent, and his ideas are infinitely bigger than ours. We will certainly find that the ‘penances’ he gives us to deal with are much harder, but also more fruitful, than anything we might think up for ourselves. Our job is just to go on, lovingly, patiently, attentively, as best we can. We cannot cut out any part of the journey on which we start today. We must enter Jerusalem with Jesus in a moment of fleeting triumph; we must pass through the agonies of Gethsemane; die on the Cross with him; experience the bleakness of the tomb with him. Then, on Easter morning, before the sun is truly risen, we must rise with him and know, as if for the first time, the joy of the Resurrection and life everlasting. That is where Ash Wednesady leads. That is why we begin Lent with such great joy.