Thursday, February 15, 2024

Ash Wednesday and its Psychological Effects

What is Ash Wednesday and how does it relate to repentance and self-denial in the Catholic religion? How does it apply psychologically?

Ash Wednesday is a special day for Catholics and other Christians who observe Lent, the season of preparation for Easter. On this day, Catholics receive ashes on their foreheads as a sign of repentance, humility, and mortality. Ash Wednesday also invites Catholics to practice self-denial, fasting, and prayer as a way of growing closer to God and preparing for the celebration of Christ's resurrection.

The origin of Ash Wednesday dates back to the early centuries of Christianity when sinners who wanted to be reconciled with the Church had to do public penance. They would wear ashes and sackcloth as symbols of their sorrow and contrition. Later, this practice was extended to all the faithful, who would receive ashes on their foreheads as a reminder of their sinfulness and need for God's mercy.

The ashes used on Ash Wednesday are made from the blessed palms that were distributed on Palm Sunday the previous year. The priest blesses the ashes and sprinkles them with holy water before applying them to the foreheads of the faithful. He says either "Remember, man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return" or "Repent, and believe in the Gospel". These words echo the message of Jesus in the Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18), where he teaches his disciples how to fast, pray, and give alms without being hypocritical or ostentatious.

Ash Wednesday is also a day of fasting and abstinence for Catholics. Fasting means eating only one full meal and two smaller ones during the day, with no food in between. Abstinence means refraining from eating meat or any food made with meat. These practices help Catholics to discipline their bodies and minds, detach themselves from worldly pleasures, and express their solidarity with the poor and hungry. Fasting and abstinence are also forms of penance, which means turning away from sin and turning toward God.

Psychologically, Ash Wednesday can have various effects on Catholics. Some may feel guilty or ashamed of their sins and weaknesses, while others may feel hopeful or grateful for God's forgiveness and grace. Some may feel challenged or motivated to change their lives for the better, while others may feel overwhelmed or discouraged by their failures. Some may feel connected or supported by their fellow Catholics, while others may feel isolated or judged by their peers.  Many times, some Catholics can fall into Scruples. Scruples are when the conscience of someone is so disconnected from an understanding of God's forgiveness that it becomes preoccupied with its sin and feels they are never growing spiritually. Those experiencing scruples feel that they are not good enough for God or that they are stuck in sin even after receiving absolution. They can never experience a state of grace because they are always blaming themselves and feel they are not forgiven. It is the border lining of the Sin against the Holy Spirit where the mercy of God is doubted.

We must avoid this at all by costs or it will destroy us spiritually. When the soul reaches the point that is feels only guilt, never forgiveness, then this will be extremely destructive. The soul will not be able to advance in the spiritual life. It will place sin above God's mercy. We know that God will forgive all sins confessed in sincerity accompanied with authentic contrition.  It is important to fully realize that God will forgive. This starts with reflecting on the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. If God became man, suffered, died, and was buried for all human beings, then this shows God extremely loves the human being. God does not want our condemnation but our salvation. He proved this on Good Friday on Calvary.  Therefore, we can never dwell in guilt forever or what some call "Catholic guilt."  Guilt is good only if it brings us to repent. 

The key to experiencing Ash Wednesday in a positive and fruitful way is to see it as an opportunity rather than an obligation. It is an opportunity to reflect on one's life, to repent of one's sins, to renew one's faith, and to resolve to follow Christ more closely. It is an opportunity to practice self-denial, not as an end in itself, but as a means of growing in love for God and neighbor. It is an opportunity to begin a journey of transformation that will culminate in Easter joy.


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