Part 2 (Part 1 here)
Ash Wednesday is the very first day of Lent. It is characterized by penitential service which the catholic faithful receive ashes in the sign of the cross on their foreheads. As ashes (made from burnt blessed palms of the last years Palm Sunday celebrations) the priests exhort them with these words, ‘turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel’ or remind them that, ‘you are from dust and to dust you shall return.’
What is this placing ash in the sign of the cross on our foreheads signify? It makes remember two important things about our spiritual journey. First, is we are all created by God. The book of Genesis tells us that, ‘the Lord God took some soil from the ground and formed a man out of it. He breathed life-giving breath into his nostrils and the man began to live’ (1, 28). We came from God. We must pattern ourselves to Him. He must be our model, whom we have to imitate and follow. Our whole life begins with God, so must end up only with God. Our life must be only for Him. It is imperative for us to live a life worthy of Him. We must do everything to make our lives pleasing to God. Second, sins destroy our life and our relationship with God. Ash is totally black. It is s stain. It is dirty. This reminds us what sin does to our souls. Sin makes us dirty, disgraced before God. Sin is stain to our becoming what God wants us to be. Sin is a black spot in our relationship with God. Thus, the sacramental sign of putting ashes in the sign of the cross on our foreheads must make aware of the grave consequence of sinning. And it also reminds the need for repentance and thus make us to be truly contrite for those sins we have committed.
Since lent is a spiritual journey what should be our actions? There are three essential things. First is our action towards our fellowmen. And it should be charity. Charity is the way we love god and others for the love of God. Charity in Latin is love. It is to love and it is to love in the same way that God loves us. Saint Bonaventure defines charity as ‘a life which unites the lover with the beloved.’ Saint Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologia affirms, ‘essentially the perfection of Christian life consists in charity, first and foremost in the love of God, then in the love of neighbor’ (IIa, Iiae of 184, number 93). Charity is not simply to avoid evil. It is not simply wishing good to others. Charity is doing good things to them. Charity is what Jesus said, ‘so, do to others whatever you would that others do to you’ (Matthew 7, 12). Charity demands from us to be compassionate rather than to be critical; caring rather than always contradicting; and full of concern rather than full of contempt to others. Charity is not after personal self-interest. It enhances service. Charity is not envious of other’s success or boastful of one’s achievement. It uplifts and inspires others to move on, and to go on. It makes one more understanding and opened to their needs. Saint John in his first letter reminds us, ‘if anyone enjoys the riches of this world, but closes his heart when he sees his brothers and sisters in need, how will the love of God remain in him? My dear children, let us love not only with words and with our lips, but in truth and in deed’ (3, 18).
Second, is our action towards ourselves. And it should be self-sacrifice. Sacrifice is defined as to make things holy, to make one pleasing to God. To make sacrifice is to offer oneself to God, to dedicate one’s activities to Him, to attune one’s ways to God’s will. It is to submit oneself to God, making God to take control of our life. To do sacrifices is to do what Jesus did. It is to commit our plans and actions to His purpose. To make sacrifices is to die to the gratification of senses. We deprive ourselves of our human pleasures and comfort. We get rid of our masks and pretenses. And so, we come to realize that our utmost pleasure and comfort in life is God and comes only from God. Now our self-sacrifices during our Lenten pilgrimage call us to ‘fast’ (Matthew 6, 17-18), to ‘give alms’ (Matthew 6, 3-4), and ‘to pray always’ (John 17, 30).
Saint Peter Chrysologus writes, ‘fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. Let no one try to separate them; they cannot be separated. If you have only one of them or not all together, you have nothing. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others you open God’s ear to yourself.’
Fasting: We express solidarity and we are sensitive with those who have less. We avail ourselves to respond to their needs. To fast is to lead us to inner conversion. To fast makes us perform concrete acts of mercy and works of charity. Fasting is the mortification of our appetites . It is to practice self-indulgence. Saint Athanasius says, ‘devils take delight in fullness, all drunkenness and bodily comfort. Fasting possesses great power and it works glorious things. To fast is to banquet with angels.’ Saint Leo the Great admits that ‘there is no more profitable practice as a companion to holy and spiritual fasting than that of almsgiving.’
Almsgiving: we show our care and concern. We sympathize with them and we help. We manifest our support and we give as to assist them. To give alms is to die to selfishness, to being greedy or being stingy. To give alms is to be ready to part ways with material things, to overcome being too possessive and not to think only of one’s self. To give alms is to show our love, our compassion. We don’t give what we don’t need, what is surplus for us. Giving alms shows our concern to uplift their situation and to improve their condition in life. It is to show off, not to be popular, not for publicity. Jesus reminded us that, ‘when you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praises of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward’ (Matthew 6, 2).
Pray: we communicate with God. We open ourselves to Him. We tell Him what is there in our hearts. We unite ourselves with Him. Saint Chrysostom says, ‘prayer is the place of refuge for every worry, a foundation for cheerfulness, a source of constant happiness, a protection against sadness.’ Prayer is our landline to God. In prayer we speak to Him and we listen to Him. Saint Padre Pio affirms that, ‘prayer is the best weapon we possess. The key that opens the heart of God.’
Third is our action towards to God. And it should be repentance. In simple definition repentance is sorrow for one’s sins. In biblical term repentance implies conversion. It is turning back to God and not to rebel against Him. Prophet Isaiah appeals, ‘return, o children of Israel, to him you have so wickedly betrayed’ (31, 6). Thus repentance is to return to God and not to run away from Him. Repentance is to admit that we need God, we need to go back to Him, we need to surrender ourselves to Him. Through repentance we acknowledge the supreme power and mercy of God. We recognize His great love for us and we earnestly beg for His mercy. With His unconditional love for us we sincerely decide to change our life, to pattern our ways to Him. Repentance makes us reunite and be reconciled with God. We decide to reject everything that will offend God and our fellowmen. Repentance reconciles us with God and we are restored to our former dignity as children of God. When we repent we are resolved to correct what is wrong, to rebuild what was broken, and to make reparations. Repentance is to admit and imitate the words of the prodigal son who coming to his senses said, ‘I will get up and go back to my father and say to him: father, I have sinned against God and before you. I no longer deserve to be called your son. Treat me then as one of your hired servants’ (Luke 15, 17-19). And our God who is forever loving and forgiving Father would also reply to us, ‘we shall celebrate and have a feast, for this son of mine was dead and has come back to life. He was lost and is found’ (23-24).