Light from the Altar – Ash Wednesday

Pictorial Lives of the Saints illustration for Ash WednesdayOf all the stories of the Old Testament, that of Jonas and the conversion of Niuive is the most wonderful. The great, prosperous heathen city of Assyria stood out amongst the cities of the earth as one whose wickedness came up before God. Its destruction was at hand; yet one more warning was to be given to it. Jonas was to preach a divine threat in its thoroughfares. “Yet forty days and Ninive shall be destroyed.” And for three days the prophet proclaimed the terrible truth. “And the men of Ninive believed in God; and they ordered a fast, and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least. And the word came to the king of Ninive; and he rose up out of his throne, and cast away his robe from him, and was clothed in sackcloth and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published in The city from the mouth of the king and the princes, saying: ‘Let neither man nor beast, oxen nor sheep, taste anything; let them not feed, nor taste water. And let men and beasts be covered with sackcloth, and cry to the Lord with all their strength; and let them turn from their evil ways, and from the iniquity that is on their hands. Who can tell whether God will turn away from His fierce anger, and we shall not perish?'”

This was no exterior conversation, no outward semblance of penance and humiliation. “God is not mocked.” He sees the heart. And the heart of the Ninivites must have been truly contrite, truly humbled. For “God saw their works, that they were turned from their evil ways; and God had mercy regarding the evil which He had said He would do to them, and He did it not.”

Such was the effect of a call to penance upon a pagan, sensual people; such was its power with God that it stayed His avenging hand.

The three Sundays – Septuagesima, Sexagesima, Quinquagesima – bring us by easy steps within sight of Lent, the Church’s time for penance, fasting, fend special prayer. “Yet forty days,” is the cry. How are we going to listen to the warning voice?

“But we are not pagans,” we may say; “our wickedness does not go up before the Lord like that of the Assyrians. What was good for the wicked is not approved good for us.” The answer is, penance is good for the holy as well as for the sinful. It preserves as well as atones. Saints have felt the need of it in all ages and at all times, at the beginning of their conversion and at the end of their lives. In whichever category, therefore, we may think well to place ourselves – saint or sinner – penance is necessary for us. And we know it well. We are not true to our best nature when we deny the need of mortification. For we feel the straggle within us, the conflict between the good and the bad. We know the good should conquer, and that it cannot conquer without pain, and that this pain is mortification in one form or another.

Why do we dread penance? Because it opposes our lower nature; in simple terms, because it hurts. Nature shrinks from what hurts. Yet it is astonishing how soon penance becomes easy when it is undertaken with courage. Courage counts as two-thirds of the necessary outfit for any undertaking, natural or supernatural. What we have then, is to brace ourselves up to look forward bravely, and suffer magnanimously all the little mortifications proposed by the Church as to fasting, abstinence, and prayer. They are few enough as it is. Far be it from us to wish them fewer or less binding.

Above all, let us remember that whatever exemptions we may justly ask, we cannot justly exempt ourselves from the spirit of penance during Lent. We must feel its pressure, come under its discipline. The very weakness or labor that keeps us from fasting may itself be due penance, if suffered in the right spirit.

Now, is this determination to spend the forty days of Lent in the spirit of the Church going to make us sad or long-faced? God forbid! We might as well be Pharisees at once. If mortification does not bring with it cheerfulness and holy joy, there is something wrong with it, and we had better find out what it is as soon as possible. No. The most mortified are the most cheerful. Those shiver most who bathe at the edge of the sea and get wet by driblets. Those who plunge in deep are in a glow before they feel the shock. Those who do penance grudgingly do not taste its joy.

Dare I be amongst the cheerful givers, the generous sufferers? Yes, because “the love of Jesus urgeth me.”

MLA Citation

  • Father James J McGovern. “Ash Wednesday”. Light from the Altar, 1906. CatholicSaints.Info. 31 October 2019. Web. 3 December 2020. <>