Ash Wednesday is not just a day in the liturgical year; it is the start of a forty day period or season culminating at Easter. Looked at as a day we might see it as dominated by the giving and marking with ashes and the Gospel calling for the religious person to pray more, to fast more and give alms more. We may question each other 'What are you giving up for Lent?'
This is a start, as it is meant to be. Penance, however, is more than reflection about ourselves. We may think of ourselves as going towards our Easter Duty of confession of our sins. The second reading today reminds us that we search our life in a wider context. The context is 'be reconciled to God'.
The Rite of Penance issued in 1976, though ending with the forms that confession can take, sees confession as underpinned with the virtue of penance, the turning to God in token of our worship of him and our failures before him. Penance in turn is underpinned with the knowledge that mankind has been reconciled with God by the death and resurrection of Christ. We have been lifted to God; we do not lift ourselves.
The Rite of Penance, twice at the beginning, quotes the two verses before today's second reading: 'It was God who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the work of handing on this reconciliation. In other words God in Christ was reconciling the world to himself, not holding men's faults against them, and he has entrusted to us the news that they are reconciled.' Note that Christ has reconciled the world, mankind, not just the Church and individuals. It is also God has also assigned as the mission of the Church to preach reconciliation.
As the Rite says, the mystery of reconciliation is seen in the history of salvation. This year especially, this is reflected in the Lenten choice of Prefaces and Gospels, the liturgy leading to the Sacraments of Initiation for catechumens: Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist.
Before looking at the wider stretch of Lent we should look at the four Weekday Prefaces and see how they expand our understanding of 'what we are giving up for Lent'. These Prefaces include themes like today's Gospel: willing service to our neighbour; controlling our desires; the fruits of self-denial; the reward of fasting. As Prefaces of the Mass they are the start of the Eucharistic Prayer and part of our praise for God. Black ashes fit in a wider worshipful context. The Prefaces stress that these actions are at the same time celebration and joyful response to God. They recognise that we are being renewed in spirit and are in the Lenten season of grace. They are actions of service and submission to God. They are to lead us to a spiritual understanding of Lent and the submissions we make to God.
A longer series of themes is reflected in the Sunday Prefaces and Gospels. Here we see the mystery of Christ's reconciliation in the history of Christ's life. Key events in Christ's course of life to his death and resurrection are in the succession of Preface and Gospel themes: the Temptation in the Desert; the Transfiguration; The Samaritan Woman at the Well; the Cure of the Blind Man; the Raising of Lazarus. Jesus is the Living Waters, the Glory of God, and the Resurrection of Life, etc. This series fits with the course for catechumens, but it also fits with all the believers both as individuals and as Church.
There are many concordant paths to Easter. Lenten confession leads on to Easter Eucharist and Communion. Lenten Weekday Prefaces and Sunday Prefaces instruct and invite to Easter Eucharist and Communion. We may be following the Rite of Adult initiation to Easter Eucharist and Communion. We may be following other tracks of reconciliation. Christ, the Reconciler to his Father, unites us all in one Body, his Body. In the walk of Lent we walk beside many others with different stories, but we come together in unity, God's unity, but each in harmony of witness to God's converging paths.