Reflection for the Beginning of Lent

Written on: March 1, 2019

To begin the Lenten Season, Sr. Mary Lee Farrell offers her insights into the meaning of ashes (and, she being a woman of song, gives us two songs to ponder, also!)


Two vivid images of childhood come to me at the mention of ashes: the carefree singsong of the old rhyme which ends “…ashes, ashes, all fall down,” and the wonderful (albeit secret) contest to see which of us had gotten the darkest, or the biggest smudge of soot on our foreheads. The bigger the mark, the better! It was our yearly chance to show everyone how Catholic we were! Ashes marked us as special.

Over the years, I have returned to ponder on the meaning of ashes and their significance in my life many times, especially in times of distress or depression. So I was startled to realize that the word ashes does not appear in any of the readings for Ash Wednesday or the First Sunday of Lent.  Could I have missed it? Or is there a synonym I am missing? Perhaps. I think the phrase ‘first fruits’ can also refer to ashes. Think of the many stories of our Old Testament ancestors: always hospitable, they were quick to offer what they held most dear: the best of the flock, the sweetest fruits of the vine, to strangers and unexpected guests. They rarely seemed to enjoy the feast themselves. Think of all the temple offerings that went untasted to the fire of sacrifice. An offering of the best, turned into ashes.  An offering of all they had. And God was pleased!

“…ashes, ashes, we all fall down.” Indeed we all fall down sometimes. But Lent calls us to fall down in remembrance of times past when we have repented those falls and risen in forgiveness; we continue to fall down in wonder and gratitude for the gifts we have been given to share. Our Lenten journey begins with the ashes of Palm Sunday smeared across our foreheads reminding us that our journey is not ended until we rise. And as adults we sing:

We rise again from ashes, from the good we failed to do.
We rise again from ashes, to create ourselves anew.
And if all our world is ashes, then must our lives be true.
An offering of ashes – an offering to you.

We offer you our failures, we offer you attempts
The gifts not fully given, the dreams not fully dreamt.
Give our stumblings direction, give our vision wider view.
An offering of ashes – an offering to you.  

Ashes by Tom Conry 1978, OCP

Photo credit: Ahna Ziegler/ Unsplash


18 thoughts on “Reflection for the Beginning of Lent

  1. Sr. Mary Joan Elias says:

    A late thank you for making childhood memories into a profound reflection at a time when I often feel so in adequate. I copied this so that I can meditate on it during this Lenten season.

  2. Anne Boyer says:

    Thanks, Mary Lee.
    Much food for prayer in your thoughtful remembrance.

  3. Janet Friedman says:

    Thank you Sr. Mary Lee. Loved the song lyrics too.

  4. Sister Patricia Geary says:

    Thank you, Mary Lee, for reminding us that the Ash Wednesday smudge is a Lenten prod to beg the Lord to create a ‘clean heart in each of us.’

  5. S.Patricia Eileen says:

    thanks mucho Lee…love the way you always hit the nail on the head and the way you share your giftedness…

  6. Martha Vottero says:

    Thank you Sister Mary Lee. May God bless you for all of your love, prayers and help.

  7. Rose Burke says:

    Thank you Sr. Mary Lee. I enjoyed reading your perspective on Ash Wednesday!

    Hope you are doing well.

  8. Teri Schneider says:

    Thank you! I am going to read this at a school board meeting soon!

  9. Sr. Maria Christi Drysdale says:

    THANK Mary Lee for your INSPIRATIONAL Lenten reflection about ashes.
    We certainly have witness via the media the devastation of ashes from the fires of California, New Jersey Pine lands, and elsewhere and I am always AMAZED how new growth of LIFE appears in the midst of these ASHES.
    May God in this Lenten Season bless us with Life-giving inspiration to deepen our life with God and the World family He has destined us to share in.

  10. Jeri Rogers says:

    Thank you Sister Mary Lee. An inspiring reflection I have been so inspired by the Grey Nuns through the years!.

  11. Julia Lanigan, GNSH says:

    Thank you for this rich and challenging reflection as we begin this Lenten season!

  12. Michael McClure says:

    Thank you Lee. You are helping me.

  13. Sr. M. Teresa LaBrake, GNSH says:

    Thank you, Mary Lee. Your reflection on Ashes made me rethink my conception of ashes and the many forms created because of happenings that created the ashes.

  14. Mary Pfeiffer says:

    Wonderful reflection Sister Mary Lee. Thank you for sharing!

  15. dcaldw says:

    Thank you Sister ! I am looking forward to following your reflections during Lent ! Debbie caldwell

  16. Karen Altman says:

    Thank you for an inspiring beginning to a beautiful season.

  17. Mary Elizbeth Looby says:

    Well done! Enjoyed the childhood memory!

  18. Sister Eileen Spanier says:

    Thank you S. Mary Lee. I really enjoyed your reflection. There is much to ponder and pray about.

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