Joel 2, 12-18, 2 Cor 5, 20- 6, 2, Mt 6, 1-6, 16-18
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Season of Lent. It is a season of penance, reflection, and fasting which prepares us for Christ’s Resurrection on Easter Sunday. While sprinkling the ashes the priest or the deacon says “Remember, Man is dust, and unto dust you shall return.” Ashes are a symbol of penance made sacramental by the blessing of the Church, and they help us develop a spirit of humility and sacrifice. The ashes are made from the blessed palms used in the Palm Sunday celebration of the previous year. The ashes are christened with Holy Water and are scented by exposure to incense. While the ashes symbolize penance and contrition, they are also a reminder that God is gracious and merciful to those who call on Him with repentant hearts. Ashes are signs that we are all in this sin business together, and that the difference between the good in us and the bad in us is sometimes frightfully thin. We so often fall short of the Faith we claim. We have treated people as things and we have treated things as if they were valuable people. And so we look into our hearts and make the ancient prayer of one notorious sinner our own: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” His Divine mercy is of utmost importance during the season of Lent, and the Church calls on us to seek that mercy during the entire Lenten season with reflection, prayer and penance. By observing the forty days of lent, the individual Christian imitates Jesus’ withdrawal into the wilderness for forty days and at the same time contemplates on the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The focus of Lent that starts on Ash Wednesday is threefold: It is a time to prepare new converts for baptism through intensive study and instruction. It is a time designated for the preparation of candidates for baptism and confirmation. Hence it is a season which is intentionally set aside for examination, instruction, penitence and prayer for these candidates. The candidates had to come to the church to receive the word of God but could not participate in the Eucharist during that time. It was a time for long-standing Christians to review their lives and renew their commitment to Jesus Christ. This season is the time for all the people of God to reflect on Christ’s journey to Calvary where he died on the cross and ended with Resurrection. Lent as a liturgical season 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. It was a time for backsliders or public sinners to be restored to the faith. They were expected to come before the Bishop or elders and confess their sin. For the next forty days they spent time in penance, prayer and reflection of the word of God and were accepted back into the community on Holy Saturday. In every case, it is a time for serious, disciplined self-examination, a time spent in intensive prayer and repentance before the cross of Calvary. Hence the church instructs the faithful that these 40 solemn days are to be spent in prayer, fasting and almsgiving. At the same time 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.
First Reading of today taken from the Book of Joel, tells us of the Lord God who 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. We read in the Old Testament, many tore their clothing as a sign of repentance. However, the tearing of their clothing was only an exterior sign; this never indicated true repentance. Their hard and stubborn hearts had not changed. While externally they showed repentance their internal ways still remained sinful. 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. At the same time the season of Lent and particularly the Ash Wednesday reminds us 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. The reading also reminds us that 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. It means that all are invited and called upon to enter this realm of sanctification.
Our Second Reading of today took from the Second Letter to the Corinthians and we heard St. Paul appealing to his church as he tells 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. 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.
The Gospel of Matthew we heard today gives us the selected verses from the Sermon on the Mount. This teaching of Jesus gives us the ethical norms necessary for each Christian to live a fully committed life to God and fellow men. 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, 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. Jesus then invites us to a closer relationship with God. Our devotion and our piety must manifest private and intimate relationship between the Lord God and us. 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.
Jesus in his Sermon speaks of the three Christian and human virtues namely alms giving, prayer and fasting. Almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, are three great Christian duties-the three foundations of the law, and by them we do homage and service to God with our three principal interests; by prayer with our souls, by fasting with our bodies, by alms-giving with our estates. The giving of alms is a great duty, and a duty which all the Disciples of Christ, according to their ability, must abound in. It is prescribed by the law of nature and of Moses, and great stress is laid upon it by the prophets. The Jews called the poor’s box the box of righteousness. That which is given to the poor is said to be their due. When we sacrifice something of our own by giving help to the Community or by reaching out to someone in need in the form of alms giving, our left hand must not know what your right hand is doing. Jesus calls us to do all acts of Charity privately and then forget about it. Hence he uses the imagery of the deed of our right hand that is ready to give and the left hand must not even know about it. The acts are done not for the sake of receiving praise and gratitude.
Jesus then speaks about the prayer. Our prayer is our personal relationship with God. It is our raising of our heart and mind to God and build our personal bond with him. If one prays a long time and must be to talk to God and not to receive praises from others about the spirituality one professes. He tells that we must go into our bedroom or the quiet hidden place, close the door and pray to God the Father in private so the Heavenly Father may sees us in private and reward us accordingly. Finally if one decides to fast it has to be done as abnegation and not to show to people how often we fast. If one actually fasts the Lord does not want us to overdo it to the extent that you look weak and sick so the others will notice that you are fasting. An individual Christian should 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, we will be in a position before God the Father to receive the proper reward.
Jesus today tells us that we must do better than the scribes and Pharisees in avoiding heart-sins, heart-adultery, and heart-murder, so likewise in maintaining and keeping up heart-religion, doing what we do from an inward, vital principle, that we may be approved of God, not that we may be applauded of men; that is, we must watch against hypocrisy. The Lord will reward us. The reward may not be here and now but we must look for the reward in the life to come. We pray to our Father in Heaven to grant us such reward that we may be worthy of the grace and love through his gracious hands. We pray that our Lenten season may be a time to prepare ourselves to the death and resurrection of our lord.
Fr Eugene Lobo SJ, Rome