1 March 2006: Ash Wednesday
Joel 2: 12-18; 2 Cor – 6:2; Mt 6-16, 16-18
Today, we are turning a new page in the Liturgical Calendar. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the liturgical season of Lent, which is forty days that precedes Easter. We are reminded in the season of Lent that we should be reconciled with God in view of our salvation completed at Easter in the Resurrection of Christ.
There are two points which I would like to share tonight: the symbol of the ash, and the meaning of Lent.
First, the symbol of the ash. The ash that is placed on our forehead is a symbol of our repentance. The spiritual practice of applying ash on oneself as a sign of sincere repentance goes back thousands of years. In the Old and New Testament, when someone had sinned, he cloth his body with sackcloth and covered himself with ashes. However, the putting of ashes and the wearing of sack clothes are only external signs that do not necessarily mean sincere repentance. The first reading from the book of Joel tells us not to rend our garments, but our hearts. And that we should return to the Lord with our whole heart with fasting and weeping, begging on our knees for the Lord’s mercy and forgiveness. Thus, if we have to advance in virtue, or resolve to be a good person, we have to build up virtue through weeping. Abba Anthony declared boldly, “Whoever wishes to advance in building up virtue will do so through weeping and tears.” To be good means to know the Prayer of Tears.
The path of tears is the path taken by many men and women who march across the pages of Scripture and history. The Greek word for tears is Penthos. It is NOT the tears of our actors and actresses that fill our television with drama and anguish. It is NOT the tears which we feel when hurt by another. It is NOT the sentimental, romantic and emotional tears shed by the broken-hearted, the feeling-inaapi or the perpetual melancholic.
Penthos means a broken and contrite heart. It means inward Godly sorrow. It means blessed, holy mourning. It means a deep, heartfelt compunction. It is the anguish of Job when he said, “My eye pours out tears to God” (Job ). Or of Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, who declared, “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!” (Jer 9:1). Psalm 119 says that “My eyes shed stream of tears because your law is not kept”. Consider Jesus who offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears. See Jesus weep over his beloved
Penthos is what ashes means. To have deep sorrow for sins we have committed against God and against others. To weep because we have hurt ourselves, and we have hurt others. To mourn because our relationship with God has been severed, and like a wound, it is constantly bleeding. To cry because our relationship with others is on the verge of death. To wail because we have contributed to the graft and corruption in our government. Penthos is our prayer of tears.
What is it about all this sorrow and weeping and mourning? It sounds very depressing, at least for us who have been accustomed to good feelings and emotions. This brings us to the second point: the meaning of Lent. Lent comes from the Anglo-Saxon word, spring. And thus, Ash Wednesday is a transition to spring. Spring symbolizes new life, when all the leaves and flowers begin to bloom and grow. Therefore, Lent tells us the reason for the sorrow and the weeping and mourning. The obvious result is “deep joy”. Joy is the most obvious result of a heart perpetually bowed in contrition. Basilea Schlink writes, “The first characteristic of the kingdom of heaven is the overflowing joy that comes from contrition and repentance… Tears of contrition soften even the hardest of hearts.” The Psalmist sings, “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.” (Ps 126:5).
This experience is not new to many of us who have experienced forgiveness. It is illustrated when, after a terrible fight with our parents, we weep with sorrow, and being granted forgiveness, we cry in relief and comfort. This is illustrated when after a very sincere Confession; we walk away with a skip and a jump, as if a heavy burden has been lifted from us. Ang gaan ng feeling! This is illustrated when after a long period of silent treatment from a friend or a loved one, and suddenly we merit their forgiveness; we run to their embrace with abandon and with tears of joy. A friend of mine had been hardened by several tragedies in her life: when her father died, when her boyfriend left her, when her friends betrayed her, she never shed a tear. But when someone who sincerely loved her, embraced her one day, she wept first with sorrow, and then with joy!
The meaning of Lent becomes profoundly true only in view of spring, of new life, of Easter! It is a tragedy that some of us remain with Lent and forget Easter! I believe this is the reason why the Lord teaches us the right way to pray and to fast: keep it secret. As we enter into the season of Lent, let us put on a happy face! It is what Lent is for. The Gospel says, “When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear fasting!”
Today we remember: the Ash is for Easter. Winter for spring. Penthos for joy. Let us say with the Psalmist, “May those who sow in tears, reap with shouts of Joy!” (Psalm 126:5).
*photograph by Aldo Joson