Lectionary Readings: Jl 2:12-18 / Ps 51 / 2Cor 5:20-6:2 / Mt 6:1-6, 16-18
I don’t know about you, but the more Ash Wednesdays that I experience, the deeper I think about who I am and how I should live. When I was younger, precisely in Junior Kindergarten, attending an Ash Wednesday Service at my elementary school back then, Our Lady of Lourdes in Downtown Toronto, presided by Fr. Michael Coutts, S.J. (don’t ask me why I still remember the name of the priest from 15 years ago), I remember dislike having black stuff put on my forehead and for years after, I dreaded Ash Wednesday simply because of that liturgical gesture. To me, I saw it as unsanitary, and “weird”. However, when I grew a little older, I slowly began to understand the meaning of Ash Wednesday.
Ash Wednesday marks the start of the season of Lent, not only for Catholics, but for many of our Christian brothers and sisters. On this day, ashes are distributed as a sign of repentance, and also a reminder of who we are. During the distribution of the ashes, the minister may say one of these two formulas as indicated in the Roman Missal:
Repent and believe in the Gospel.(see Mark 1:15)
(Paenitemini, et credite Evangelio.)
or the other formula, which is more traditional:
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.(see Genesis 3:19)
(Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.)
I wish to speak more about the latter formula, which comes from Genesis 3:19. In the beginning, God made man from dust (cf. Gen 2:7) and God breathed life into him, making him a “living being”. However, in Genesis chapter 3, man disobeyed God and therefore, the consequence of sin was ultimately death, thus the return to dust. In the words of Jesuit Fr. E.F. Sutcliffe, in his Commentary reminds each Catholic on Ash Wednesday of “man’s frail tenure of life.”
Recognizing this is rather haunting – to be reminded that ultimately, at the end of the day, anyone no matter who they are as pope or layperson, prime minister or citizen, rich or poor, etc. all would eventually all return to dust. Therefore, Ash Wednesday should serve as not only a “momento mori”, but rather of the quality of life we should live and that is reflected in the readings today.
The readings from Joel and Matthew were already used in the Pre-Vatican II Mass (with an exception of a couple verses here and there, but the bulk of it has remained unchanged). Thus, the Lectionary Readings used today have been indeed used for quite some time in the Church. The readings set the tone for the Season of Lent. Lent is not a doom and gloom season. Rather, as the readings suggest, it is a season of change, of repentance through prayer, fasting and almsgiving not in a dismal sense (cf. Mt 6:16), but rather, in a spirit of humility and communally (cf. Jl 2:16-17).
These readings are read every year (A, B, C) and yet, do we strive to act upon it? Do we find a sense of joy in the prayer, fasting and almsgiving that we do, or do we do it simply because it is routine, or it is part of law or custom? I think sometimes we fail to recognize the importance of these acts. While some of us may think that these pillars are merely annual routines, Preface III of Lent states that,
For you will that our self-denial should give you thanks,Preface of Lent III
humble our sinful pride,
contribute to the feeding of the poor,
and so help us imitate you in your kindness.
The acts of prayer, fasting and almsgiving during the season of Lent helps us to become more disciplined, and through that, we strive to imitate Jesus himself. Lent is a time for us to be more focused on our spiritual lives, and how we can live as better Christians. Recognizing that will set a compass for all of us during the Season of Lent. We look forward to Lent with a sense of purpose in what we are doing.
Is this going to be easy? Absolutely no, it will not be easy, and Mother Church recognizes so in its Collect of Ash Wednesday, as it prays,
Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fastingCollect of Ash Wednesday
this campaign of Christian service,
so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils,
we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint.
Therefore, do not give up if your Lenten sacrifices are difficult, because to be holy, to strive to imitate the kindness of Our Lord, requires virtues and discipline which must be practiced everyday, over and over again.
To close this reflection, I borrow the words of our Holy Father, Pope Francis, in entrusting this Lenten Season to the Blessed Virgin Mary,
I ask Mary Most Holy to pray that our Lenten celebration will open our hearts to hear God’s call to be reconciled to himself, to fix our gaze on the paschal mystery, and to be converted to an open and sincere dialogue with him. In this way, we will become what Christ asks his disciples to be: the salt of the earth and the light of the world (cf. Mt 5:13-14).Message of His Holiness Pope Francis for Lent 2020
With that, I wish everyone a holy and fruitful Lenten Season.