Today we are entering a new Season, one of penance and sacrifices. Together, we have gathered here to celebrate “Ash Wednesday,” the first of forty days of the Lenten Season that precedes Easter. On this special occasion, we are called to be reconciled to God. Through the sacramental of ashes that is symbolic of penance, we are reminded that we as sinners are but dust and ashes. The ashes remind us that we are sinners and in need of mercy and forgiveness from God and the need to turn away from Evil.
Today, in preparation for the joy of Easter that approaches, we call upon the mercy of the Lord Jesus, asking Him for His blessings and forgiveness. For the Heavenly Father does not want us to die but to live with the risen Christ who reigns forever and ever. As such, through the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, we prepare ourselves to celebrate the death and glorious Resurrection of Christ our Saviour by being cleansed from our sins through a renewal of spirit. The spiritual practice of applying ashes on oneself as a sign of sincere repentance goes back thousands of years. Frequently in the days of the Old and the new Testament, as we have heard from the readings of the Scriptures during the past year, when someone had sinned, he clothed his body with sackcloth and covered himself with ashes. The sacramental that we are observing today arises from that custom, the spiritual practice of observing public penitence.
Church history tells us that the liturgical practice of applying ashes on one’s forehead during the Lenten Season goes back as far as the eight century. This was accompanied by different forms of fasting, prayer, sacrifices, charity towards others, etc… The writings of St. Leo, around 461 A.D., tell us that during the Lenten Season, he exhorted the faithful to abstain from certain food to fulfill with their fasts the apostolic institution of forty days. As we heard during today’s First Reading from the Book of Joel, the Lord God calls upon us to return to Him with all our hearts, with fasting, weeping and mourning. We are told to split apart our hearts, not our clothing.
In the days of the Old Testament, many tore their clothing as a sign of repentance. But this was an exterior sign and there was no true repentance. Their hearts of stone had not changed! They had not let go of their worldly ways to embrace holy ways. To practice sincere repentance, the Lord God tells us to change our hearts. We are called to examine our most inner self, those evil ways that we have to let go, once and for always. We must always remember that the Lord God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not punish us if we are sincere and turn away from our sins. God is not a God of punishment but a God of love to those who strive earnestly to walk in His righteous ways.
As the first reading reminded us, our sanctification in the likeness of Christ is for all those who have placed their faith in Christ on the day that they received Baptism. We are told to assemble the aged, to gather the children, and even the breast fed infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her canopy. This is a very powerful command that includes everyone, of all ages! This is the time when the ministers of the Church beg the Lord, asking Him on behalf of the people, to show His mercy upon them. This is the time the Church reminds the Lord of His promises made to Abraham, our spiritual father, that we will inherit the Promised Land, the eternal Kingdom of God. The practice of reminding the Lord God of His promises is to draw His pity upon us who are weak sinners. We know that the Lord God keeps His promises. He will save those who walk in righteousness in daily communion with Him.
In today’s Second Reading from the Second Letter to the Corinthians, we heard St. Paul appealing to us on behalf of Jesus to be reconciled to God. The Lord God reminds us that He heard our cries that were raised to Heaven. He has helped us to secure our salvation. Now is the time for us to show our appreciation to the Lord God by walking in His righteousness so we may inherit the salvation that we have asked of Him and which He is granting to us through His infinite love and mercy.
How do we walk in righteousness? Jesus answered that question during today’s Reading from the Gospel of Matthew. It is not by continuing in our worldly ways. It is by embracing a spiritual mind so we may mature in Christ by the grace of God the Father and the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus warns us against hypocrisy and the practice of piety that it may be seen by others. They have received their rewards through those who admired them and praised them for it. For them, there is no reward from God the Father in Heaven. Hypocrite in Greek meant an actor one who puts on different roles. Jesus wants of us to be our own real self before God. During the Lenten Season, our piety must manifest our personal, intimate relationship between the Lord God and ourselves. We must experience a real and personal transformation of our whole being beyond our going to Church.
Equally, when we sacrifice by giving to someone in need or when we offer our help to some one, our left hand must not know what your right hand is doing. Do it privately and then forget about it. We must perform the task without expecting any return from the person who has been helped by us.
Similarly, Jesus speaks about prayer. Our prayer is a personal relationship between God and ourselves. Suppose if we decide to increase our time of prayer during Lent, it is good but not to be done in public like in church when every one come. Jesus tells us to go quietly to the inner room and pray alone to the Father in heaven and he is sure to reward us. Further Jesus adds the fast as a matter of penance. It is not for show but as an act of mortification done without any indication or show. One must fast to the degree that he can manage, always being cheerful and looking healthy so no one but God will know that he is fasting. Then he is eligible for the reward from God the Father.
Ultimately what is important for us is to be reconciled to God! These are the guidelines that the Church has received from Jesus so the faithful may experience true repentance in order to receive Divine mercy and forgiveness. As we enter the Lenten Season, we remember these words every day! Practice them! And surely, God will reward us.