As the final prayers of the rosary were said, an acolyte prepared the altar and sanctuary for the celebration of Ash Wednesday on March 6 at Holy Family Cathedral in Anchorage. Archbishop Paul Etienne, principal celebrant, glanced over the day’s readings. The sanctuary was draped in purple fabric, the liturgical color of the Lenten season.
Worshippers gathered quietly. The line of penitents receiving the sacrament of reconciliation dwindled to two or three. Candles were lit. A baby babbled, friends and acquaintances spoke in low, hushed tones.
There was no music to mark the start of the liturgy, as the archbishop, Dominican Father Steven Maekawa, and the acolyte made their way silently to the altar. Though Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation, the downtown church was full.
The day’s first reading, from the Book of Joel, is a request from the Lord: “Return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning”— hallmarks of the Lenten season. The faithful were reminded to rend their hearts and not their garments. The reading spoke of the grace and mercy of God, who is “slow to anger, rich in kindness and unrelenting in punishment,” and ended with the hope that God will leave behind a blessing for his errant people.
An unaccompanied cantor sang the lament of the penitent soul in Psalm 51, who acknowledges offenses against God. The psalmist hopes in the goodness and mercy of God and that he will be restored and renewed in the joy of salvation. The assembled responded: “Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.”
The day of salvation is also the hope of the author of the second reading from 2 Corinthians, who reminds the faithful that they are “ambassadors for Christ” who must be reconciled to God, who, through Jesus Christ, became sin, so we may become the “righteousness of God.”
As is the practice throughout Lent, no “alleulia” was sung before the Gospel reading. The familiar acclamation will not be heard again until the Holy Thursday liturgy — a reminder of the soul’s penitential journey.
In the Gospel reading of Mark, Jesus instructs his followers how to perform the customary works of Lent: “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them…and do not let your left hand know what your right is doing.” Of prayer: “Do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corner so that others may see them.” Of fasting: “Do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting.” Jesus assures, “Your Father, who sees what is hidden, will repay you.”
Archbishop Etienne, in his homily, said that growing closer to the Lord and in greater conformity to him is the tone of Ash Wednesday. The ashes placed upon the faithful have a two-fold meaning, he said.
“We mark ourselves with these ashes as a recognition of the sins we have done and our need for God’s mercy,” he said, adding that “We ourselves are just dust. Yes, we are created in God’s image and likeness, our lives are sacred and we have a dignity in that.”
“Being reminded of the fleeting nature of our human life also tells us we are pretty insignificant and we shouldn’t be taking ourselves too seriously,” Archbishop Etienne said. “What we should be taking seriously is our relationship with God and the care we are showing our neighbor.”
Lent is a time when Catholics typically take stock of what is in need of repentance in their lives, and in the broader life of the Church.
“We have much to do repentance for,” Archbishop Etienne continued. “We have many that we are to be more mindful of, and extend greater compassion and charity and love and opportunities for healing, and being renewed into the whole experience of the family of the church.”
Archbishop Etienne reminded the gathered Catholics that Lent is a time to repent and be mindful of the compassion of God — mindful of salvation through Christ.
Following the homily, the ashes were blessed and more than 300 attendees were marked on the forehead with an ashen cross, with the words, “Remember, you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” This ancient ritual, whose beginnings are unclear, is said to have originated during the papacy of Gregory the Great (590-604).