Joel 2:12-18; 2Cor 5:20-6:2; Matt 6:1-6, 16-18
Almsgiving, Praying, Fasting
Today is Ash Wednesday and is a very important day in the life of the Church because this is the official beginning of Lent. Today we are also going to receive ashes and in a few minutes, during this Holy Mass, the ashes will be blessed and imposed. These are ashes that come from the palms and branches blessed on Palm Sunday last year. These palms and branches are symbols of our faith in Christ, to whom we renew our baptismal promises during the Easter Vigil celebration. But now these palms and branches are dry, brown and unpleasant to look at which symbolize our souls that for the past months are soiled again by our imperfections, disloyalty and sins.
The Church receives this expressive rite of the imposition of ashes from an ancient Jewish tradition. For the Jews pouring ashes on the head was a sign of public sorrow and repentance. Therefore, this rite is not a private affair. It is a community act. It means that we are now showing publicly our firm commitment to perform acts of penance and refrain from committing sin during this day and throughout the forty days of the Lenten Season. It is a terrible shame if we come today to church in order to receive ashes and yet we do not take advantage of the special opportunity the Church gives us during Lent to really prepare ourselves for Easter.
Ash Wednesday is also a joyful celebration of the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem and this is mixed with the sadness of our recognition that we are not worthy to have Jesus enter into our souls. But God gives us today another chance to return to Him, to return to the beauty and innocence of our baptism. Upon receiving the ashes the priest and other ministers say: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.” With these words Jesus gives us the guide to reach the goal of this season which is repentance, conversion and faithfulness to His words. We hear the word ‘conversion’a lot and conversion is another way of saying, ‘turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.’ It really means to reverse our course, to change and to transform ourselves truly and sincerely. It really means to turn our eyes towards God and follow Him with courage and determination.
There are some basic ancient practices of Lent and are mentioned by our gospel today that may help us, like: prayer, fasting, almsgiving or works of mercy. These three practices make us reach out to God as well as to our neighbor. Our Christian life is characterized by these three things together everyday of the year:
First is the most obvious one, prayer. As friends we have to do things together like: be in each other’s presence and talk. The same applies in our friendship with God. For sure, the most important is what we are doing now, we participate in the Mass. It is the greatest prayer because it renews Jesus’ sacrifice which opens heaven to us. But our participation in the Mass has to be complemented by being alone with God after the Mass which is away from the community or from people in order to be with Him. The place could be before the Blessed Sacrament in the Adoration Chapel and then read a good spiritual book which will help us focus on God, pray the rosary or take a walk asking the Lord to accompany us. If there are no other places to be alone and commune with God, the toilet is a good place. I’m sure no one is going to disturb us but let us be sure that nobody wants to use it anymore or else a long line is formed outside the door. But please don’t do it for show so that people will not think what a spiritual person we are but to grow in our friendship with Jesus.
Second is fasting. Ash Wednesday is a day of fasting and abstinence. Every generation of Christians fasted until about 1960. We need to return to this practice. At a very minimum we must follow the rules of fasting and abstinence during this day. And so therefore, there is no meat today and the next seven Fridays of Lent. Fasting is giving up some favorite food or eating less. Fasting is also to let go of the things that we enjoy. It is to let go of the things that are pleasing to our senses and pleasing to the taste. This reminds us that if we are going to get to heaven we must deny immediate impulses, take up our cross and follow Jesus.
Third is almsgiving. Fasting in itself is not good at all times. Fasting only becomes good at all times when it is accompanied by this third practice, almsgiving. In other words, the food that we will not eat today let us give it to somebody who is poor and hungry. This is the way of fasting. But personally, I honestly do not give immediately to every person who shows up and ask for help. I want to be a good steward by using resources to best help others. I do it mainly through charitable institutions that help as best as they can, the needy people. St. John Chrysostom said that after we have satisfied our own basic needs and of those we are directly responsible for, all the rest belongs to the poor. Lent is time to look at the things we spend our money on. Lent is a good time to get rid of some of the clutters in one’s room and of one’s life.
In a few minutes, we will receive each one of us a black cross on our foreheads. It reminds us that soon we will return to dust. And Lent calls us back to basics: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Let us turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel. How do we want to use this allotted time for God?