February 29, 2004
vol 15, no. 60

Sackcloth, Ashes and the Sandals of Readiness While Sodom and Gomorrah partied on sinking deeper in depravity and perversity, only Ninevah heeded the warning. Only Ninevah was saved by putting on "sackcloth and ashes" and fasting and praying. A word to the wise should be sufficient!

      "Every time Jesus quotes Scripture in response to Satan's temptations, He quotes from Israel's law-book: Deuteronomy. The points where Jesus succeeds in His temptations are exactly the points where Israel failed in theirs: grumbling about bread, putting the Lord to the test, and ultimately, choosing to worship the gods of the nations instead of worshiping the one true God. The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness is, effectively, the beginning of the restoration of Israel. Jesus retraces their steps and rights their wrongs - where they failed, He succeeds, and in some mystical way, He atones for their wilderness failings."

    Editor's Note: Apologist Jacob Michael presents a succinct Catholic Apologetic based on the Holy Scriptures. He has chosen to call his column Quid Dicit Scriptura? - What Saith the Scriptures? He utilizes the approved and superior Douay-Rheims Roman Catholic version in his apologia and holds to the Council of Trent's decree to "accept Sacred Scripture according to the meaning which has been held by Holy Mother Church and which She now holds. It is Her prerogative to pass judgment on the true meaning and interpretation of Sacred Scripture and will not accept or interpret it in a manner different from the unanimous agreement of the Fathers." In place of his anticipated second installment of his series on "Mother's Medicine: Mary as Mediatrix", he takes a hiatus from that to provide an explanation of WHY Lent, it's meaning and the scriptural origins of the practice of this Holy Season. He writes this in response to so many letters from non-Catholics and Catholics who don't seem to fully grasp its importance in our spiritual growth.
Some passages below are highlighted in blue bold for emphasis.

   Many non-Catholics, and even uninformed Catholics have written to inquire about the purpose of the season of Lent, and the meaning of the Ash Wednesday ceremonies. As with most of the rites and ceremonies of the Church, this season and this liturgy are polyvalent - that is, they have many layers of meaning. I will do my best to explain them so that I don't leave anything out.

   The immediate significance of the forty days of Lent is that it parallels the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness before His temptation. So, on a surface level, we are walking in Our Lord's footsteps by entering these next forty days with fasting and penance.

   But to get the fuller meaning of our forty-day fast, you must dig deeper. Yes, it is a mirror-image of Our Lord's forty-day fast, but why did He fast for forty days to begin with?

   You have to view Our Lord's wilderness trial in the context of His ministry - namely, what came before the wilderness? St. Matthew's Gospel presents us with a very interesting literary structure: chapter 2 shows us the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt to avoid a cruel dictator's decree of infanticide; chapter 3 shows us Our Lord's baptism and His public identification as the Son of God ("this is My beloved Son, etc."); chapter 4 takes us immediately to the forty-day fast and wilderness temptation.

   Of course, St. Matthew is carefully sketching a literary portrait of Our Lord as 1) a New Moses, and 2) a New Israel. The flight into Egypt to avoid infanticide at the hands of Herod echoes Moses' "flight" into Egypt to avoid infanticide at the hands of Pharaoh. The baptism of Our Lord and His identification as the Son of God echoes the Red Sea crossing (St. Paul explicitly calls this Red Sea crossing a "baptism" in 1 Cor. 10), and Israel's identification as the "firstborn son" of God (Ex. 4:22).

   After crossing the Red Sea, Israel immediately began their journey through the wilderness towards the Promised Land. And how long did this journey last? Forty years. And was it an easy forty years? No, we find that Israel was tested and tried during their wanderings. Sadly, we also find that they failed these tests miserably, and instead chose to murmur and complain against Moses and the Lord.

   So Jesus sets out to retrace their steps - His "Red Sea crossing" (i.e., His baptism) is immediately followed by a journey into the wilderness for forty days, each day symbolically representing one of the forty years of Israel's wandering.

   I don't have time to get into the beautiful symbolism of the three temptations that Jesus faces, but I will say this: every time Jesus quotes Scripture in response to Satan's temptations, He quotes from Israel's law-book: Deuteronomy. The points where Jesus succeeds in His temptations are exactly the points where Israel failed in theirs: grumbling about bread, putting the Lord to the test, and ultimately, choosing to worship the gods of the nations instead of worshiping the one true God. The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness is, effectively, the beginning of the restoration of Israel. Jesus retraces their steps and rights their wrongs - where they failed, He succeeds, and in some mystical way, He atones for their wilderness failings.

   Well, anyway, the point is this: Jesus' wilderness trial is symbolic of Israel's wilderness trial, but Israel's wilderness trial is symbolic of our journey on this earth. We all begin the Christian pilgrimage by crossing the Red Sea of baptism and escaping the Egyptian Slavery of original sin. We proceed from those waters, then, and begin our life-long journey towards the Promised Land of Heaven, sustained by the Heavenly Bread and the miraculous "spiritual drink," but along the way, we will be tested and tried. Will we succeed, or will we be like the Israelites? "Nevertheless with most of them God was not pleased; for they were overthrown in the wilderness." (1 Cor. 10:5)

   Our Lord shows us the way to triumph over temptation in the wilderness: by prayer and fasting. So we mimic Him as He retraces the steps of Israel, which are, symbolically, our own steps. He fasted for forty days, so we will do likewise.

   The symbolism continues, however, in the fact that our forty-day Lenten season takes us right up to Easter Sunday. Just as the Israelites' forty-year wandering ended with their arrival at the Promised Land, so our forty-day fast ends with the glorious celebration of the Resurrection, which, please God, we will all share in someday.

   For now, however, we wander. We are tested. We are tempted. And we listen carefully to the Apostolic admonitions on how to best overcome this sinful flesh. We hear St. Paul telling us, "if by the Spirit you mortify the deeds of the flesh, you shall live," (Rom. 8:13) and, "they that are Christ's have crucified their flesh." (Gal. 5:24)

   Again, St. Peter tells us that, since Christ Himself suffered in the flesh, we must also be "armed with the same thought: for he that hath suffered in the flesh hath ceased from sins." (1 Pet. 4:1-2) Once more, we hear St. Paul: "I chastise my body and bring it into subjection: lest perhaps ... I myself should become a castaway." (1 Cor. 9:27)

   Yes, this is all quite contrary to modern sensibility. I dare say you could visit a different church every week of the year and never once hear it proclaimed that the Christian duty is to fast and mortify the flesh. This, despite the fact that Our Lord Himself said, "If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me" (Matt. 16:24). Self-denial is simply not part of the modern Gospel.

   So much did Our Lord intend for us to fast and mortify the flesh, that not only did He foretell of future days of fasting (Mark 2:20), but He left us instructions on how to fast, beginning with the words, "And when you fast, be not as the hypocrites..." (Matt. 6:16). Many Christians would do themselves great benefit to realize that Our Lord said "when you fast," and not "if you fast."

   Further, the Old Testament is replete with examples of how fasting and penance effectively turned away the wrath of God. He specifically told His people to fast through the prophet Joel: "Be converted to me with all your heart, in fasting, and in weeping, and mourning. And rend your hearts, and not your garments and turn to the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, patient and rich in mercy, and ready to repent of the evil" (Joel 2:12-13).

   Ezra says, "I proclaimed there a fast ... that we might afflict ourselves before the Lord our God, and might ask of him a right way for us and for our children, and for all our substance ... And we fasted, and besought our God for this: and it fell out prosperously unto us" (Ezra 8:21, 23).

   Of course, the most notable example of fasting and penance (not to mention the use of ashes) that pleased Almighty God is the example of the Ninivites: "And the men of Ninive believed in God: and they proclaimed 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 God saw their works, that they were turned from their evil way: and God had mercy with regard to the evil which he had said that he would do to them, and he did it not" (Jonas 3:5-6, 10).

   The Ninivites are a good model for us during Lent, for they, too, were given forty days in which to repent and amend their ways. So appropriate is their example, in fact, that the Holy Church has chosen to bring it before our eyes at every single Ash Wednesday service, wherein the priest prays: "O almighty and everlasting God, Who didst vouchsafe Thy healing pardon to the Ninivites doing penance in sackcloth and ashes, mercifully grant that we may so imitate them in our outward attitude as to follow them in obtaining forgiveness."

   This, then, is the purpose of Lent: to follow in Our Lord's footsteps and prepare ourselves for Easter by mortifying our flesh. The Resurrection is not obtained without the Cross, and as naturally lazy humans, we need to be annually reminded of this. So we tighten our grip for forty days and deny ourselves of otherwise-legitimate things - which makes it easier to deny ourselves the temptation of illegitimate things. We eat less. We sleep less. We watch less TV, and we look for opportunities to say "no" to the flesh. We deny ourselves more. We pray more. We make a conscious effort to practice more piety. In short, we declare serious warfare against the devil and his minions, and we wage our battle by prayer and fasting.

   Naturally, this is something that we should be doing all year long, not merely for forty days during Lent. Holy self-denial should be a weekly practice, as indeed it is in truly Catholic circles where meat is still passed over on Fridays. But the fact of the matter is this: very few of us are disciplined enough to practice regular mortification. Most of us can't even remember to pray every day, much less crucify the flesh. And so Lent serves as a swift kick in our lazy rear-ends, a kind of spiritual "boot-camp" to remind us how flabby and out-of-shape we've become - and to remedy that flabbiness.

   Many might be in favor of the general concept of self-denial, mortification, and fasting, but they object to such things being "imposed" on everyone on a yearly basis. Well, let me pose this question to them then, directing this to each person directly: since Lent of last year, how many times have you fasted voluntarily, or embraced a season (day, week, month, whatever) of self-denial? You know, perhaps a day where you said "no TV today," or a week where you said, "no salt this week?" Have you done so at all? Have you offered even one day of mortification to Our Lord in this whole past year? If not, then perhaps you are yourself in need of an imposed period of Lent.

   The fact is, most people don't fast and pray as they ought. Even though they know they should, and agree that it is beneficial, they don't do it unless they are told to. They need to have it imposed upon them from an external source, or they would never do it. Hence, the wisdom of Holy Mother Church - She insists, for the good of Her children's souls, that they fast and mortify the flesh, at a minimum, for forty days out of the year (not to mention various other fast days, such as Ember Days and Vigils that occur sporadically throughout the liturgical year).

   Some people object to the whole idea of Lent. They find it superficial, if not outright Pharisaical, to give up material pleasures for forty days, citing instead the need to "deny yourself" of spiritual evils. Such people are usually the very ones who most need a good forty days of material mortification themselves - they forget that Our Lord said, "these things you ought to have done, without neglecting the others" (Matt. 23:23).

   Finally, a word or two about the ashes themselves. Since this past Ash Wednesday marks the first day of the forty-day fast, it is the appropriate day to - in Scriptural terms - put on "sackcloth and ashes." Ashes are a sign of mourning and repentance in Scripture, and that is precisely what we are doing: we are lamenting our sins (not to mention the sins of our nation) and humbling ourselves in the ashes in order to move God to have pity.

   Ashes are a sign of humility - and not only a sign, but a reality, as anyone who has worn the ashes on his head during Ash Wednesday and also gone about his business in the public will tell you. People stare and smirk. You are advertising your shame to the world: yes, I am a sinner, and I deserve this black mark on my forehead, for it resembles the blackness of my heart at times. And humility is what moves the heart of God. How, pray tell, do you get God Himself to repent? How do you bend God? With humility. Humble yourself, and God will bend low to hear you, and will repent of the evil He had planned.

   The ashes are also a sign of our mortality. As the priest traces the ashes on our forehead in the sign of a cross, he says, Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris - that is, Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return (Gen. 3:19). Those were the terrible words spoken to Adam after his fall, and through him, to us. It is because of Adam's sin that we have need of an Ash Wednesday, which necessarily takes us to Good Friday's Passion, and ultimately leads us to Resurrection Sunday.

   But that is nearly forty days from now. For now, it is ours to remember the fall of Adam, to remember the ashes placed on our foreheads, and not to spiritually wash them off but to remind us to do penance and to fast. We have forty days, just as Ninive had forty days, and the ashes remind us that our mortality is certain: do we really have even forty days to make amends? Perhaps not. Perhaps your appointment before the Divine Tribunal comes thirty days from now, not forty. What is certain is that you are dust and ashes, that you will return to dust and ashes, that you only have so much time to repent and mortify the flesh, and that you probably have wasted most of the last 365 days doing something other than fasting and penance. Most likely you have been indulging the flesh and doing the things that now make repentance necessary.

   So take advantage of this forty days. For those who are not Catholic (though God may grant them the grace of conversion yet), regardless, they too should shoulder the Lenten burden. Purpose now to deny themselves of this or that thing for the next forty days. We should all purpose to give up caffeine, sugar, television, pop, or whatever else has become a comfortable habit for us recently. Purpose to increase in sanctity, piety, devotion, and virtue, so that Easter will not catch any of us by surprise this year.

   Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris...

Jacob Michael

    Next Week: The Mediatrix at the Wedding at Cana

If you want to ask Jacob a question, you can e-mail him at and we encourage you to visit his site A Lumen Gentleman - Lumen Gentleman Apologetics.

      First Sunday of Lent
      February 29, 2004

      vol 15, no. 60
      Quid Dicit Scriptura? - What Saith the Scriptures?