A real Lent in a time not so real

40 Shades of Lent by Fr. Nicanor F. Lalog II
Ash Wednesday, 17 February 2021
Joel 2:12-18   >><)))*>  2Corinthians 5:20-6:2  >><)))*>  Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
Photo by author, chapel at Franciscan Monastery at Mt. Nebo in Jordan overlooking the Promised Land or Holy Land, May 2019.

Today we begin our annual Lenten pilgrimage with Ash Wednesday in the very different situation and conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic now in its first full year. Although this may be the most unusual, both unreal and surreal Lent since the end of Second World War, this could also be our most real Lent so far.

Being real means getting into the very core of our very selves, focusing on the more essential that are invisible to the eyes. Since the popularity of social media and smart phones, life has become more of a big show than of living that we care more of lifestyles than life itself.

All three readings today invite us to get real, to confront our true selves, stop all pretensions by letting go of our many excuses and alibis. No more ifs and buts. Just our bare selves before God for tomorrow or later may be too late. St. Paul’s words perfectly express the challenge and beauty of Lent 2021:

Brothers and sisters: We are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.

2 Corinthians 5:20, 6:2

Lent is a journey into inner self 
to reach out to God through others.

The forty days of Lent are a journey characterized by three important acts so central not only to Christianity but also to the other two great faiths of the world, Judaism and Islam. These are fasting, prayer and alms giving. Through these acts, we journey back into our very selves in order to reach out to God through others.

And we start by cleansing our very selves through the putting of dry ashes on the crown of our head instead of the more usual imposition on forehead to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The use of ashes as an outward sign of our inner cleansing beautifully tells us of its being natural cleansing agents long before the invention of chemical solutions. As such, being closest to earth, ashes remind us so well of our mortality, “for dust thou art and unto dust shall you return”!

However, though we are all marked for death as the ashes signify, they are blessed at the start of today’s Mass to remind us too that we die in Jesus Christ because ultimately, we return to God who is our true origin and end.

Hence, the need to cleanse our very selves by emptying ourselves of all the dirt and filth of sin inside that have marred our image and likeness in God. More than the outward appearance of putting ashes on our heads to signify cleansing is its internal significance of cleansing within by self- emptying through fasting.

In fasting, we cleanse our inner selves by denying ourselves not only of food but also of the usual things that fill us especially in this age of affluence and consumerism. Not only of material things but anything that make us forget God and others, that make us forget that we are mere mortals, weak and imperfect.

By fasting, we empty ourselves of our pride to be filled with Christ’s humility, justice, and love so we realize the world does not revolve around us. That we do not need so many “likes” and “followers” like in social media that inflate our ego but still leave us empty and lost.

And now is the perfect time, as St. Paul reminds us.

When we look back in this past year, so many of our relatives and friends have died, some alone, due to COVID-19 and other illnesses. The pandemic had grimly reminded us of life’s fragility and the need to be more loving always because we’ll never know if we can still be with everyone.

Fasting reminds us who and what are most essential in this life like God, life, and loved ones. Not likes or followers, luxuries, money, fame, or food.

In Tagalog, the word for meat is “laman”; to fast and go without meat literally means “walang laman” which also means “empty”!

When we fast and become empty, then we create space for God and for others.

That is why it is easier to pray and be one with God in meditation and contemplation when our stomach and senses are empty because we become more sensitive to his presence in Jesus. Silence in itself is a kind of fasting, the very key to any form of prayer.

Who needs to look gloomy when fasting when we are filled with the most wonderful and essential in this life who is God as Jesus tells us in the gospel, “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites” (Mt.6:16).

In the same manner, whatever we save in our fasting, whatever we deny ourselves, we give and share with others in alms giving. Try opening your Facebook. What fills up your page? Your selfies? Your me-time? Your work and errands? Whatever fills your FB page, most often it always gratifies you for better and for worse. And yes, of course, they all indicate how glamorous and fabulous is your life.

This Lent 2021, so many people have lost their jobs. So many are struggling to make ends meet. Others’ sufferings have become more unbearable not only with financial difficulties but simply due to difficult conditions traveling to undergo chemotherapy or dialysis.

Life has been so unreal, even surreal for all of us since last year. And God is the one most sad of all in what we have been going through in this pandemic. But he cannot do anything for us because we still rely so much with our very selves, with our science and technology that all feed on to our pride and selfishness. Every day we hear of news of all kinds of abuses and lack of kindness going on, even among states and governments in the allocation of vaccines.

The pandemic is not purely medical and biological in nature but something spiritual.

Now, more than ever, is the Prophet Joel’s call more true:

Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning. Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God. For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment.

Joel 2:12-13

If there is anyone who wishes this pandemic to end so we can see and be near with each other without any fear of getting sick, of dying, that must be God. Like St. Paul, let us implore everyone to be reconciled with God right in our hearts by taking our fasting, praying, and alms giving seriously. Amen.

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