Ash Wednesday, Sin, Penance, and All That Other Good Stuff

Marilyn Regan

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A good friend of mine recently wrote an article about why you should write about what you know, what you’re an expert on.

Raised as a Catholic and a graduate of parochial schools for 12 years with those scary nuns, sometimes referred to as “penguins” for their black and white habits, I can say I am an expert.

Like many of us, I had no choice in the matter. I was told what to believe, how to believe it, and what to do to demonstrate this belief to the world.

And today, I would get my ashes and walk around all day with a black smudge on my forehead like thousands of other “good Catholics.”

The Origins of Ash Wednesday

Initially, Ash Wednesday was intended as a token of penance and private devotion. 

Later, it became public. Of course! Why keep it between you and God. Let the world judge you. It was a sign of your sin to others so that they could, allegedly, pray for you as you made yourself worthy enough to rejoin the church. 

In all likelihood, those ashes were similar to The Scarlet Letter, announcing to the world you were some sort of prodigal son. Or daughter.

Lent is now considered a penitential season that begins on Ash Wednesday, a day of fasting and prayer for Catholics. The season ends on Easter Sunday.

Growing up, it meant I “gave something up,” something I enjoyed as penance for my sins. You went to confession every week to receive forgiveness for those sins.

“What sins, exactly, could a child of eight or ten years be guilty of?” you ask. Well, it doesn’t take much to be considered a sinner in the Catholic Church. 

How do you sin?

If you’re Catholic, all you have to do is be born. And it’s all Eve’s fault. If only she had resisted the serpent and not eaten that apple, we wouldn’t have been born with the “stain of original sin.”

In the Hebrew context, sin is committed as both a commission and an omission, though the latter was not something we were educated on. Instead, we had the ten commandments instructing us on what not to do.

The meaning of sin is “missing the mark.”

Really? 

Aren’t we supposed to make mistakes and learn from them? Shouldn’t we be trying and failing regularly? How else can we move forward and develop character? 

To sin is to live. If not, we are failing by our lack of effort.

But alas, sinning and Catholicism go hand-in-hand. The only way to erase these transgressions is to confess your sins, and do penance. And poof! You’re forgiven. And you can do it again and again without learning or changing a damn thing.

Anyone who believes in a God must know he’s not that stupid.

So why do Catholics go for it?

Confession and Penance

Confession is known as a sacrament. You tell a priest your “sins,” he absolves (forgives) you and instructs you to perform a penance to complete the process. 

This is often in the form of prayer. This means you get to walk out the door without sin. 

Until next time.

But what if the priest does not absolve you? Though this never happened to me, the Catholic doctrine states that “he whose sins you forgive are forgiven and he whose sins you do not are retained.”

So it’s up to someone else to free you of your sin or make you live with them. Or die with them. And if they’re “mortal” sins, serious ones like murdering someone or missing mass on Sunday, and you die, well, you’re on your way to hell.

You missed your chance for eternal salvation and are “consigned to flames of woe.”

Yes, it’s a control thing.

Festival of Sin

So these 40 days in which Catholics recognize and atone for sin is, in a sense, a festival of sin. Guilt. A reminder of why you are not worthy, less than, and will never be good enough.

After Easter, you can go back to the normal amount of guilt without the daily reminder.

You, who the Bible says was made in God’s image and likeness was created flawed. God made a mistake. So he created something to fix it.

I don’t think so.

All the sin, penance, and sacrifices are a means of control. Of creating fear that without someone telling you exactly what to and how to do it, you will do horrible things and go to hell. For all eternity. 

Eternity is quite a thing to hold over someone’s head.

And it has worked for centuries.

It’s Always Been Ours

Having guidance is good, but the afterlife is just that, life after the physical. Unless, of course, you don’t believe in it.

If you do, you don’t need any religion or sacrament to obtain an afterlife that is not in hell.

We will always make mistakes, but if we recognize them, learn and do better the next time, then we’re doing what we’re supposed to. In the end, it’s not the things you’re not supposed to do that matter; it’s that thing called the Golden Rule.

So do unto others and you’ll be on the right path.

It’s all you need to do.

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Marilyn is a writer, yogi, spiritual medium and animal lover. She is a Bostonian in every sense and has the accent to prove it. She loves the ocean, the outdoors, wine, and sleeping in. She days what she means and doesn't waste words. Finally, she is mother to one son, two cats and has three grandchildren.

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