It was quite a sight on Wednesday, 22 February, as many Christians showed up at different places, offices, banks, hospitals, bus-stops, and markets, with ashes on their foreheads. That these Christians included men, women and children; a mix of high-flying business executives, bank managers, traders, market women, bus drivers, and okada riders did not help matters. More so, for the uninitiated, the fact that the ashes traced the sign of the cross made the sight a bit eerie. “Has any cult come abroad for some mission?” They might have wondered.
For Christians, however, it was a sobering day. It was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Lent is the forty-weekday period of prayer, fasting and abstinence, and almsgiving before Easter Sunday. Christians troop to churches to receive ashes on Ash Wednesdays. The ashes come from the burnt palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday.
At Christ the King, Ilasamaja, on 22 February, the crowd was enormous. Even with four Masses and ten priests and ministers, the three thousand-plus capacity church overflowed with worshippers at each Mass, sometimes with those outside outnumbering those inside the church. Such is the significance Christians place on the reception of ashes on Ash Wednesday, a biblical symbol of mourning and penance, of conversion and repentance. Interestingly, a good majority of those who received ashes on that day were not Catholics, or even Christians.
As the priest signs the forehead of the faithful with ashes, he says: Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return (see Genesis 3:19). Why so? Ashes symbolize death and remind us of our mortality. They symbolize our sorrow and humility before God. Like the people of Nineveh in the Bible, who did penance in sackcloth and ashes, we are marked with ashes to humble our hearts and remind us that life on earth is here today and gone tomorrow. It does not endure. It is ephemeral.
Ashes also remind us that God is ever gracious and compassionate to those who turn to Him with repentant heart. “Have mercy on me, God, in your goodness; in your abundant compassion blot out my offence… [For] a heart contrite and humble, O God, you will not spurn,” the Psalmist implores (Psalm 51:19).
The use of ashes as a sign of repentance dates back to ancient Jewish religious practices. Among the many examples in the bible, Moses and Aaron, together with their followers, used the ashes of a red heifer burnt as a sin offering to effect ritual cleanness after ritual impurity (Numbers 19). Job, at the end of his faith crisis occasioned by his grueling trials, declared: “I disown what I have said, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). The prophet Jeremiah called his people to repentance thus: “O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes” (Jeremiah 6:26).
Arguably, the best-known illustration of repentance in the Old Testament also involves sackcloth and ashes. When the prophet Jonah finally obeyed God’s command and preached in the great city of Nineveh, his preaching was amazingly effective. Word of his message was carried to the king of Nineveh. “When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in the ashes” (Jonah 3:6).
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, in the early centuries of the Christian era, Christians who had committed mortal sins performed public penance. On Ash Wednesday, the Bishop blessed the hair shirts which they would wear for the forty days of penance, and sprinkled over them ashes made from the palms from the previous year. Then, while the faithful recited the Seven Penitential Psalms, the penitents were turned out of the church because of their sins—just as Adam, the first man, was turned out of Paradise because of his disobedience. The penitents did not enter the church again until the Thursday before Easter, (Maundy Thursday), after having won reconciliation by the toil of forty days’ penance and sacramental absolution. Subsequently, all Christians, whether public or secret penitents, came to receive ashes out of devotion.
Although the prophet Isaiah critiqued the use of sackcloth and ashes as inadequate means to please God, his admonition however indicates that it was a common practice in Israel: “Is this the manner of fasting I wish, of keeping a day of penance: that a man bow his head like a reed, and lie in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?” (Isaiah 58:5). Certainly not! “This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own” (Isaiah 58: 6-7). The prophet Isaiah points out the ethical implications of our fasting, of our Lenten observances—that our fasting spur us to concrete deeds of love, deeds of charity. Our fast should be a lived action. It should call us to conversion, a change of heart, metanoia, that affects our relationship with family, friends and neighbor. This conversion is wrought in prayer. We seek the face of God in prayer. We gauge our relationship with God and neighbor in prayerful meditations. We evaluate and assess our life’s mission in prayer. And when we find ourselves wanting in any of these, we should retrace our steps, seek the face of God and God’s will. That is conversion. So we should do well to observe our fast this Lent in prayer. Pray with your family. For as the clichéd adage says, a family that prays together stays together. Have you been praying with your family?
As we pray, we do not turn our gaze inward towards ourselves alone. That becomes selfishness. We are asked to look outward to those in our midst who do not have. We deprive ourselves of something in order to share with others. We can resolve, as our Lenten charity/almsgiving, to save up a fraction of our phone cost and, at the end of Lent, donate it to the poor, to a charity home. That’s something concrete, and doable.
Among other things, the prophet Isaiah talks about releasing those bound unjustly. Again, true fast is expressed in concrete acts of love for others; acts of justice, fairness, and truth. But have you released your spouse from bondage? Some married people dread the presence of their spouse for one reason or the other. What about that poor girl or boy in your neighborhood, your maid or house boy, your little niece or nephew, or even your own daughter or son whom you abuse at will with little or no regard for her dignity, have you released her/him? From physical abuse, psychological abuse, verbal abuse, and sexual abuse; have you released her/him? The Lenten period is the time to break these yokes. Let whoever is concerned go free. Let them loose. Set them free.
Basically, our prayer, our fast, and our almsgiving should lead us to the most important of Lenten observances, namely to resolve to do good and to avoid evil. That resolve comes with keeping the laws of God, his precepts and his commandments. If you love me, Jesus enjoins his disciples at the eve of his passion, keep my commandment (John 14:15). That call has not changed. It’s still the same today.
When you keep my commandment, says the Lord, “then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be healed; your vindication shall go before you, and the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer, you shall cry for help and he will say: Here I am! If you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; then light shall rise for you in the darkness, and the gloom shall become for you like midday; then the Lord will guide you always and give you plenty even on the parched land. He will renew your strength, and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring whose water never fails” (Isaiah 58: 8-11).
May your true observance of Lent be acceptable to God and may it bring you God’s favors and graces.
And as always, remain blessed and keep smiling.