My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Several years ago, I was celebrating Mass on Ash Wednesday. Ashes are normally blessed and distributed after the homily during the Mass on Ash Wednesday. A person who arrived late and missed the distribution of ashes came up in the line for holy Communion apparently expecting to receive ashes. When I held up the Host and said, “The Body of Christ,” the person looked at the Blessed Sacrament and said, “I don’t want THAT! I came for ashes.” I responded politely that this was the time for holy Communion, but ashes would be available after Mass as well.
How sad that someone would want to receive ashes but not the Body of Christ! Yet it is not uncommon to see large crowds of people coming to church on Ash Wednesday, including many people who do not regularly come to Mass on Sunday. Ashes received on Ash Wednesday are an important sacramental reminding us of our mortality and calling us to repentance so that we will be in the state of grace when we die. Despite the symbolic significance of receiving ashes to mark the beginning of Lent, the sprinkling or smudging of ashes on our head pales in comparison with the sublime gift of the Real Presence of Christ that we receive in holy Communion.
Of course, if we are conscious of grave sin, we are not to receive holy Communion until we have repented, confessed our sins to a priest, and received absolution in the sacrament of penance. The only exception is if there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess, in which case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition which includes the resolution of confessing as soon as possible.
An example of a grave reason and no opportunity to confess would be if a priest were to commit a mortal sin and is scheduled to celebrate Sunday Mass for a church full of people, while the nearest priest is miles away. Since he has a grave obligation to celebrate that Mass for these people to fulfill their Sunday Mass obligation, the priest should make a perfect act of contrition and resolve to confess his sins as soon as possible thereafter. A perfect act of contrition is when we are sorry for our sins because they have hurt God. An imperfect act of contrition is when we are sorry for our sins because we are afraid of going to hell. A perfect act of contrition is motivated by love of God. An imperfect act of contrition is motivated by love of self.
Most lay people have ample opportunity to go to confession prior to Mass. Priests are usually very willing to hear someone’s confession outside of scheduled times, unless it is right before Mass is about to begin. Receiving holy Communion while one’s soul is in the state of mortal sin is itself a grave sin, that is, it is a sacrilege to receive holy Communion while not in the state of grace. The Bible teaches clearly about the proper disposition to receive holy Communion. In the First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul writes: “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (1 Cor 11:27-29).
The priest, deacon, or extraordinary minister who distributes ashes does so while saying to each person one of the following formulas: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” or “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” Having been reminded of our mortality and the need to repent our sins, the goal of our Lenten practices should be to do penance for our sins, replace our vices with virtues, and seek to be restored to a right relationship with God. In addition to fasting and abstaining from meat on Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent, making charitable contributions to help the poor, and devoting ourselves to prayer and reading the Bible, two of the most salutary practices to bring us closer to God are to receive the sacraments of penance and holy Eucharist.
I pray that this Lenten season will be a time of spiritual renewal and enrichment for you.
May God give us this grace. Amen.