Ash Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The readings: [Jo. 2:12-18; 2 Cor. 5:20-6:2; Mt. 6:1-6, 16-18]
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. “Dust you are and to dust you shall return,” says the priest as he sprinkles the ashes on the foreheads of the faithful on Ash Wednesday. With this ceremony the season of Lent begins. From Biblical times the receiving of ashes has been the sign of repentance and expresses the human condition as affected by sin. During this season all Christians are invited to pray and do physical abnegation as they look forward to receive the Resurrected Jesus. Lent, the forty days in the Christian year which lead up to Easter, is an observance of intrinsic value to the Christian church.
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. Our sanctification in the likeness of Christ is not for just a few people. It is for all those who have placed their faith in Christ on the day that they received the Sacrament of Baptism. 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. God the Father sent His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to die for us on the cross. He who was without sin took our place and was treated as a sinner, so we might become righteous in the eyes of God. What a horrible death we deserved, a death that Christ endured for us in Divine love.
Lent is a time of preparation. It is designated for the preparation of candidates for baptism and confirmation. This season is intentionally set aside for examination, instruction, penitence and prayer for these candidates. This season is one of preparation for all the people of God. It is also a time to reflect on Christ’s journey to the cross ending at the Resurrection. Ash Wednesday and Lent began as a way for Catholics to remind themselves to repent of their sins in a manner similar to how people in the Old Testament repented in sackcloth, ashes, and fasting.
Lent is a time for penitence and discipline. It is the time for mourning for Christ who is suffering, sadness over the death of Jesus and the solemnity of the ultimate victory. Personally however, during the Lenten season, self-examination is crucial. An individual’s response to the call for purposeful reflection on one’s need for God is an important factor in choosing a discipline with which to actively observe Lent. For some, fasting is a means of self-examination and denial; yet, fasting is not an appropriate discipline for all people.
Lent is a time for special prayer. Every Christian is expected to pray and do the share of his prayers daily. During Lent many people give extra time to personal and public prayer. The traditional symbol for these forms of Lenten prayer is the pretzel. In the fifth century, Christians were known to make dough of flour, salt and water, which they shaped into the form of two crossed arms to remind themselves to pray.
Lent has traditionally been marked by penitential prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These are the norms used by the Jews in their preparation for the festival. The Sermon on the Mount specially makes a mention of prayer fasting and almsgiving. During Lent prayer fasting and almsgiving are important factors and they are closely linked. Without prayer, fasting and almsgiving are merely actions we do out of tradition without much meaning. Prayer is our conversation with God. It is through prayer that we find the strength to fast. It is through prayer that we develop a closer, more intimate relationship with God. This relationship makes us so grateful for the blessings he has bestowed upon us that we eagerly give to those less fortunate than us. Fasting is one of the most ancient actions linked to Lent. The pangs of hunger remind us of our hunger for God, and prayer and fasting together brings us to what Lent is about – a deeper conversion. Almsgiving is simply a response by us to God, a response that we have come to through prayer and fasting. Here we come to a deeper understanding that the needs of all are the responsibility of all people in the Body of Christ. Works of charity and the promotion of justice are integral elements of the Christian way of life we began when we were baptized.
Lent is known as a time of spiritual renewal and growth. As Christ fasted and prayed in the desert for forty days, we try to be mindful of Christ for the standards by which we live our lives, with goals of self-giving and suffering love. With such high goals, any programmatic response may seem to fall short, yet an attempt to incorporate prayer, meditation, and useful action in the path of Christ into our lives, is invaluable.
In the Gospel Jesus warns us against hypocrisy, those who are pious so they 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. During the Lenten Season, our piety must manifest private time between the Lord God and ourselves. We must experience a transformation of our whole being beyond going to Church. We must walk with Christ in our lives every minute of the day, from the time we rise in the morning until the time we go to bed at night.
The Season of Lent was evolved in the life of the Early Church to prepare candidates for Baptism at Easter. This was done to make clear the vital link between Baptism as the initiation into the life-giving death of Jesus. But since these new members were to be received into a living community of Faith, the entire community was called to preparation. It was also the time to reconcile those who had become separated from the life of the Church by their failure and mistakes to live out the Christian life. During Lent these penitents prepared themselves to renew the baptismal promises they had broken and be restored to the Eucharistic life of the Church. It was a time for backsliders namely those who were loosing their faith due to many reasons to be restored to the faith. Those Christians who had been tepid in their faith received a call to renewal. In this way, the whole People of God were reminded of the need to live their lives in the gift of forgiveness that comes from Christ and to constantly to renew their faith. Together, the candidates, the penitents and the faithful were bound together in a common shared pilgrimage to Easter.
Lent is marked by a time of prayer and preparation ultimately leading to the celebration of resurrection of Jesus, the six Sundays that occur during Lent are not counted as part of the 40 days of Lent, and are referred to as the Sundays in Lent. The number Forty is connected with many biblical events, but especially with the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness preparing for His ministry by facing the temptations that could lead him to abandon his mission and calling. Christians today use this period of time for introspection, self examination, and repentance. The number forty has many Biblical references: the forty days Moses spent on Mount Sinai with God, the forty days and nights Elijah spent walking to Mount Horeb, God made it rain for forty days and forty nights in the days of Noah, the Hebrew people wandered forty years travelling to the Promised Land, Jonah in his prophecy of judgment gave the city of Nineveh forty days in which to repent.
Ash Wednesday, the seventh Wednesday before Easter Sunday, is the first day of the Season of Lent. Its name comes from the ancient practice of placing ashes on worshippers’ heads or foreheads as a sign of humility before God, a symbol of mourning and sorrow at the death that sin brings into the world. It not only prefigures the mourning at the death of Jesus, but also places the worshipper in a position to realize the consequences of sin. Ash Wednesday is a sombre day of reflection on what needs to change in our lives if we are to be fully Christian. In the early church, ashes were not offered to everyone but were only used to mark the forehead of worshippers who had made public confession of sin and sought to be restored to the fellowship of the community at the Easter Celebration. However, over the years others began to show their humility and identification with the penitents by asking that they, too, be marked as sinners. Finally, the imposition of ashes was extended to the whole congregation in services similar to those that are now observed in many Christian Churches on Ash Wednesday. Ashes became symbolic of that attitude of penitence reflected in the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us”.
Fasting during Lent was more severe in ancient times than today. Current fasting practice in the Roman Catholic Church binds persons over the age of eighteen and younger than fifty-nine. Later according to Canon Law, days of fasting and abstinence are set by the national Episcopal conference. On days of fasting, one eats only one full meal, but may eat two smaller meals as necessary to keep up one’s strength. The two small meals together must sum to less than the one full meal. Parallel to the fasting laws are the laws of abstinence. These bind those over the age of fourteen. On days of abstinence, the person must not eat meat or poultry. According to canon law, all Fridays of the year, Ash Wednesday and several other days are days of abstinence, though in most countries, the strict requirements of abstinence have been limited by the bishops to the Fridays of Lent and Ash Wednesday. On other abstinence days, the faithful are invited to perform some other act of penance.
Lent is the primary time for celebrating the Sacrament of Penance, because Lent is the season for baptismal preparation and baptismal renewal. Early Christian teachers called this sacrament “second Baptism,” because it is intended to enable us to start again to live the baptismal life in its fullness. Those who experience the loving mercy of God in the Sacrament of Reconciliation should find themselves standing alongside the newly baptized at Easter filled with great joy at the new life God has given all of us.


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