Once upon a time, it was announced in a certain parish that the diocesan bishop would be visiting the parish on a pastoral visit. This great event of the bishop’s visit held once in four years due to the large size of the diocese was marked with a great preparation. There were renovations within the Church premises, decorations, clean ups, etc just to prepare for bishop’s visit. This is an indication that most often, important and remarkable things do not just happen without serious preparations. For an ordination and profession to take place there must have been a period of formation, for graduation, a period of scholarly involvements, serious academic struggles and scholarship, for marriage, a period of courtship and even for Christmas, a period of advent. Therefore, the Church as the Vehicle of Salvation has also deemed it wise to prepare Her members for the re-enactment of the Sacred Mysteries of the Death and Resurrection of Our Lord. That is why today being “Ash Wednesday”, we are launched into this great season of preparation we all regard as the Lenten season or period. Today’s liturgy has two special characters: repentance and preparation. These special characters have several implications for us.
In the first reading (Joel 2:12-18), we are presented with the character of repentance. Repentance in Judaism is known as teshuva literally meaning “return”. Teshuva implies a return to Yahweh which a sinner makes after committing sin. Christianity therefore adopted this meaning. Thus, in repentance, the sinner abandons his/her old and evil ways of life and returns to God in a new and holy way of life. That is why the first reading asks the bride and bridegroom to leave their clove and bedroom, and the priests and ministers of the Lord to turn to the Lord and lament for Him to spare His people. In repentance we turn away from sin, turn to the lord, admit our faults, confess our sins and ask for His pardon. To make us more conscious of the need for repentance, the Church borrows from the Jewish culture, the sacred use of ashes. That is why in this Mass, the ashes from the palm fronts blessed last Palm Sunday will be blessed and applied on us. These ashes remind us of our nothingness before God who we rebel against by our sins. They also remind us that we came from dust and shall return to dust. When it is applied on us, it also depicts sorrow for our sins just as the Ninivites did. For these reasons, today is called Ash Wednesday.
The gospel reading (Mt. 6:1-6, 16-18) presents us with the second character of preparation. Preparation in this context means making someone or something ready for something better. Within this period of lent, we are to make ourselves ready to die with Christ that we may rise with him at Easter. To do this, the gospel reading presents us with the three pillars of a perfect Lenten observance: prayer, almsgiving and fasting. Jesus therefore warns us never to practice them like the hypocrites always seeking for people’s recognition. Rather, we should do them in secret so that our Father who sees in secret will reward us. Are you resolved to abandon your old and evil way of life to embrace a new and holy way of life? Do you feel the need to repent of your sins because of your nothingness before God? Who knows whether this is the last opportunity you have to refrain from that sin that you are addicted to before it destroys you? We cannot claim to be perfect, a sincere introspection will always make us guilty of something we can repent of. Though God is merciful, He is just and repays each man according to his deeds. But this is one of such moments when God’s mercy triumphs over his justice. He is waiting for the repentant sinner just like the father of the prodigal son not to condemn him but to grant him pardon and acceptance (cf. Luke 15:11-32).
How are you preparing yourself for the Lenten observance? Only those who die with Christ by engaging themselves in prayer, almsgiving and fasting within this period will rise with him into a new life at Easter. Why not make up your mind to observe them? Have you seen those around you who need help? They are the means of grace when you help them. Have you been weak in your prayer life? This is the best time to take it up as a challenge. Have you gotten yourself in so much inordinate love with something? This is the best time to fast or detach from it to get yourself in love with your God. You can fast from food at least on Fridays and also, from those things that give you pleasure especially sin. Deny yourself of something and offer it up to God. Do not be afraid as you plan to do these things. You can really do them because the second reading (2 Cor. 5:20-6:2) has assured us that God has given us the grace to do this, so do not neglect this grace. You can always sustain it in prayers. Therefore, as the reading says, now is the favourable time and the day of salvation, with this grace, work out your salvation in fear and trembling. God loves you.