Ash Wednesday (Year A)
First Reading: Joel 2:12-18 Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2 Gospel Reading: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
“ BE MERCIFUL, O LORD, FOR WE HAVE SINNED.”
A story is told of a man, who while driving a car met with a terrible accident. A few people soon gathered at the place of the accident and came forward to offer him immediate help that he needed. But the man said , “Oh! There’s nothing wrong with me.”
“But sir, you’ve just been in a terrible car accident. You’re bleeding and have some deep bruises. There may be internal damage!” someone from the crowd said.
But the man said again,“There’s nothing wrong with me!”
Another man then suggested, “At least have a doctor check you out, sir. We have an ambulance right here – it wouldn’t take very long.”
But the man again insisted,“I told you, there’s nothing wrong with me!” And he walked away from the car accident.
After this, his wife, when she heard of her husband's accident came there, picked him up and drove him home. Later, he died from internal bleeding.
'There’s nothing wrong with me' can be a dangerous statement to make. Spiritually, it is probably the worst thing a person could possibly say. For a person to stand before God and say, 'There’s nothing wrong with me' – that’s incompatible with Christianity, and unacceptable to God. Man is sinful and there is always something wrong with him. So, a true Christian is someone who humbly stands before God and says, “Be merciful, O Lord, for I have sinned.”
Today is “Ash Wednesday,” and this marks the beginning of the new liturgical season of Lent. Lent is a Holy Season, a time of prayer, fasting and abstinence. It encompasses 40 days and its observance is specifically linked with the celebration of Easter. As a matter of fact, it is a preparation for Easter, spiritually, of course.
As we begin our Lenten pilgrimage today, it is perhaps befitting for us to consider the various specific terms associated with this Holy Season, and have a closer look into their proper meanings and real significance:
The word “Lent” comes from an old English word which means 'spring time.' It, therefore, reminds us of spring cleaning and new life in nature during the Spring season – say for example, new leaves appear on the trees. In the same way, the holy season of Lent is a time for our spiritual renewal, by giving up our old sinful nature and being reconciled to God. It, therefore, calls us for 'metanoia,' a complete change of heart through repentance.
The period of Lent consists of '40 days,' corresponding to Our Lord's fast for 40 days in the wilderness, after his baptism at Jordan by John the Baptist, before he began his public ministry. This has its root in the Old Testament, when the people of Israel traveled through the desert for 40 years on their way to the Promised Land. One might rightly wonder why these people took such an extensive time, while they didn't have to travel so long a distance. Actually, God took this time to form them into His own people, by establishing with them a covenant through Moses on Mount Sinai and disciplining them to walk in His commandments. In the same way, 40 days of Lent is a time for us to reform ourselves through a rigorous spiritual discipline.
The season of Lent always begins on a 'Wednesday;' in fact, 'Ash Wednesday' to be more specific, and concludes on Holy Saturday, just before Easter Sunday. Consequently, the 1st day of Lent cannot be any other day of the week except that it necessarily has to be a 'Wednesday,' considering the fact that 6 Sundays in Lent are not counted among the 40 days of Lent; it is because each Sunday represents a 'mini Easter' – a celebration of Jesus' victory over sin and death.
We begin the Lenten season on a Wednesday and we apply 'ash' on our forehead on this day – so, it is named 'Ash Wednesday.' Often the ashes are made by burning the palm leaves used in the Palm Sunday service during the past year. Ashes are a sacramental, and the symbolism of ashes has a very strong appeal:
Firstly, because ash is the oldest kind of soap, which was used to make things clean – therefore symbolic of purification. Also, in the OT, the Israelite people used ashes in the rituals of purification. Ashes were a sign of grief, mourning, humiliation & penitence. When Job loses everything, he sits among the ashes.
Secondly, ashes remind us of a common origin and also of our nothingness – that we are but merely dust and ashes. The Book of Genesis tells how man was created from the dust of the ground. We are reminded not only of our beginning but also of our end. On the First Day of Lent, ashes are imposed with the words - “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Those words apply to us all.
While ashes may signify and remind, they also invite. They invite us to repentance. So, it is with the spirit of repentance that we receive ashes on our foreheads - “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” Ashes invite us to turn again to God and to receive a new life. Ashes are not the end, but are just the beginning. They begin a season that moves through silence and longing into a season of joy and resurrection.
'Violet' is the color of Lent, representing our sorrow for our sins, and is symbolic of our repentance.
The above evidently shows that in our Liturgical Calender, 40 days of Lent is a Holy Season, a time of grace, during which we spiritually renew ourselves through genuine repentance and prepare for the forthcoming Easter. Let us now consider the Scripture Readings of today, which basically focus upon this same theme:
In the First Reading of today, from the Book of the Prophet Joel, the Lord God calls upon us to return to Him with all our hearts, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning. He calls us for a true repentance and tells us to split apart not our clothing, but our hearts. In the Old Testament, people tore their garments as a sign of repentance – but oftentimes it remained merely an external sign and there was no genuine repentance; their hearts of stone would not change and they would not let go of their worldly ways to embrace holy ways. We, therefore, are called today to examine our most inner self, those evil ways that we have to let go, once and for always, and to return to the Lord, saying - “Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.”
In the Second Reading of today in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, St Paul appeals to all of us to be reconciled with God through Jesus Christ. God the Father sent His only begotten Son to save us from sin and death by dying on the cross. He who was without sin took our place and was treated as a sinner, so that we might receive God's grace and become righteous in the eyes of God. So, let us come to the Lord with gratitude and humbly implore - “Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.” St. Paul further asserts, “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation,” when we are to show our gratitude to God for His mercy and love, by walking in the way of righteousness.
But, how do we walk in the way of righteousness? In today's Gospel Reading according to St . Matthew, Jesus Himself gives us good advice to follow while performing righteous deeds. Specifically, he tells us how to pray, how to fast and how to give alms.
Regarding prayer, he says: "When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you."
About fasting, he directs: "When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites . . . anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you."
And finally, regarding alms-giving, he tells us: "When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you." He tells us to be 'low profile' regarding contributions, so that "your alms-giving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you."
Clearly, Jesus very strictly warns us against hypocrisy in practicing our works of piety. He tells us that our Lenten efforts are to be seen by God; they are not meant to impress our neighbors, or else we miss the reward from our heavenly Father. Also, the three works of piety, viz. Prayer, Fasting & Alms-giving, have been the essential practices the Church has encouraged in its members as a form of penance, since the early centuries.
So, today, as we begin the Holy Season of Lent with the sign of ashes, a communal and visible sign of repentance, let us begin it in a proper penitential frame of mind, seeking out sin and disruption in our lives and replacing these things with a constant dependence on God and His grace. Let us come to the Lord today with a humble heart, acknowledge our sinfulness and ask pardon for all our failures and shortcomings, and implore, “BE MERCIFUL, O LORD, FOR WE HAVE SINNED.” Let us abandon the practices of our old self and put on a new self, and let us approach Lent, not with trepidation and fear, but rather with joy, as the season of opportunity. Let us rejoice in our gracious God who desires not the death of the sinner, but his/her redemption. And this is the Good News of today.
Wish you all – A joyful and prayerful Holy Season of Lent.