40 Shades of Lent by Fr. Nicanor F. Lalog II Ash Wednesday, 02 March 2022 Joel 2:12-18 ><}}}}*> 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2 ><}}}}*> Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
For the third straight year, we enter the Season of Lent in the most unusual conditions in the world. Perhaps, even surreal. We had in 2020 the start of the COVID-19 pandemic persisting through 2021 up to the present that has altered the way we live and how we look at life.
Just when we felt like “Easter” coming in 2021, there came the stronger Delta variant at around this time that claimed so many lives among us.
Now in 2022 after we have all the vaccines available to put COVID-19 in control with a “tamer” variant Omicron, we have a more serious concern with Russia invading Ukraine.
To a certain degree, it is “good” this had happened at this time when we are starting the Lenten Season with Ash Wednesday that reminds us the question we should be asking is not “where is God” but “where are we, his people”?
It has always been the same question ever since – of “where are we in relation to God” every time there are man-made and natural disasters like wars and famine, epidemics and plagues, or earthquakes, drought and floods.
It is easier to blame God for all of our troubles because he is always silent, never answering us back; but, it is in his silence when we also realize the truth that we are the ones who have drifted apart from God, who have gone lost away from him who is always looking for us, waiting for us to come back.
It is in the silence of God that he is most present especially when we are deep in sin and sufferings.
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. Why should they say among the peoples, “Where is their God?” Then the Lord was stirred to concern for his land and took pity on his people.Joel 2:12-13, 17b-18
Lent: A coming home to God for us mortals, sinners, and ruined
Lent is a “coming home” to God with Ash Wednesday serving like a porch that leads us inside the “house of God” with each of its five Sundays acting like a door opening us closer and closer into the innermost room where God is.
In the shadows of the war in Ukraine, the COVID-19 pandemic and the heated national elections in our country, let us focus on the practice of giving of ashes every Ash Wednesday which is a gesture often mentioned in the Bible.
Ashes remind us first of all, of our mortality, that we shall all die one day. This is the reason why we priests say “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” (Gen.2:7) while imposing ashes on your foreheads in the form of a cross.
And there lies the good news too of Ash Wednesday: we do not just die, rot and return to ash because at the end of time, we shall all rise again to become whole – body and soul – like Jesus Christ!
Though we are marked for death, Ash Wednesday reassures us of our resurrection and salvation in Christ signified by the ash in the form of a cross on our foreheads.
Ashes signal our readiness for repentance as expressed in the new formula in the imposition of ashes, “Turn from sin and believe in the Gospel”.
Recall how in the Book of Jonah when the king of Nineveh removed his royal robe, covered himself in sackcloth, and sat in ashes upon hearing Jonah’s preaching as he ordered too his people to do the same that averted the wrath of God.
In the gospels of Matthew and Luke, we find how Jesus lambasted the people of Chorazin and Bethsaida for not repenting upon seeing his mighty deeds, so unlike the pagans at Tyre and Sidon who would have “repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes” (Mt. 11:21 & Lk.10:13).
Ashes also signify ruin, destruction and devastation in life like Job who had lost all precious to him when he said, “(God) He has cast me into the mire; I am leveled with the dust and ashes” (Job 30:19).
It is the most applicable signification of ashes to us today in this time of prolonged pandemic with its deep emotional and psychological impact on everyone trying to grapple with life’s many challenges as we try to start anew almost daily.
The feeling is best described by the Book of Lamentations in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem: “Those accustomed to dainty food perish in the streets; those brought up in purple now cling to the ash heaps” (Lam. 4:5).
Indeed, that ash on our foreheads reminds us of the ruin we are into as an individual, as a nation, as citizens of the world.
How often did we have to shelve and postpone our many plans in life since 2020 due to this pandemic with its recurring surges now worsened by this war at Ukraine launched by Russian president Putin?
We were already sighing in great relief the past weeks with declining cases of COVID when suddenly – to our great disbelief and dismay that this can still happen in the 21st century when Putin invaded Ukraine, casting the world into another grave danger of unimagined proportion.
And lastly, who does not feel ruined after all these years of the pandemic worsened by decadent politics that has gone into an abyss of filth and insanity?
Now more than ever we could feel and experience the “ash heap” we are into with only God who can raise us up and cleanse us again.
Lent is a joyful season!
Contrary to what most people believe, Lent is not all that drab and dry. While its prevailing mood is of sobriety and seriousness in the light of its call for penance, fasting and almsgiving, Lent is a joyful season preparing us to Easter.
St. Paul tells us in the second reading that “now is the day of salvation”:
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 the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.2 Corinthians 5:20, 6:2
To be reconciled with God who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment” begins right inside our hearts when we open it – rend – so it may be cleansed of sins for Jesus to dwell inside again.
Like our reflection last Sunday, it is the truth of the heart that must be expressed on this Ash Wednesday, that must be cleansed and “repaired” after so many beatings and ruins especially these past years (https://lordmychef.com/2022/02/26/taking-jesus-to-the-heart/).
It is the heart that must be strengthened and converted by our lenten practices because its purity is revealed by our very lives, the kind of life we lead, the aura we project even if half of our face is covered by the face mask.
This is the very essence of the Lord’s calls in the gospel to do these practices “in secret”, not be seen by others that it becomes more of a show. It is God whom we must please, not the people; to enter into one’s room is to enter into one’s self to meet God with our true selves, without our usual alibis, of ifs and buts.
This is the grace of Lent that begins on this Ash Wednesday: it is God who actually comes to us, to meet us, to work in us in his “mercy and graciousness” so we may experience his loving presence again despite all our sins and troubles.
Life is a daily Lent, a cleansing of our hearts, a repairing of our hearts ruined especially when we have truly loved and ended up being misunderstood and persecuted.
Do not worry, human love is always imperfect; only God can love us perfectly. That is what Ash Wednesday is reminding us, that we are finite and sinful, ruined most of the time but always open to God who never leaves nor forsakes us his children.
In this spirit, let us also not forget that Lent is a journey we take with others, a daily exodus from darkness to light, from sickness to healing, from ruins to newness, from sin to forgiveness and grace.
We come home to God together as a people, as a family, as brothers and sisters in Christ.
May our gathering together on this Ash Wednesday be an occasion to free ourselves from the ever-growing threats of individualism that has marked our age with everyone feeling a celebrity, even playing God.
Please don’t forget to practice fasting and abstinence today to create a space for God and for others in your heart.
Have a blessed and safe Lenten season, everyone!