A Common Day of Mourning

9 March 2011 Ash Wednesday
Joel 2:12-18; Psalm 51; 2 Cor 5:20-6:2; Matthew 6:1-18

There are varied ways in Catholic Rites to celebrate the beginning of Lent. For many Catholic churches of the Eastern Rite such as the Orthodox Churches, they begin it two days ahead of us from the Roman or Latin Rite. So they started Lent last Monday, the 7th, while we begin it today, Wednesday. Lent means the same for all of us, but we place a significant attention to the biblical number of 40. Elijah and Jesus spent 40 days and nights of prayer and fasting in the desert.

Thus, Easter is 40 days from Ash Wednesday. We determine Easter by the day of the full moon in April, and then we count backwards to determine the time we mark ourselves with the cross on our foreheads.

The color of Lent is purple which is liturgically associated with mourning and repentance. In ancient times, fabrics dyed with this color were very expensive. Thus, the color was only accessible to the rich, and most especially associated with royalty. I guess today, when we celebrate liturgical seasons peppered with the theme of reconciliation such as Advent and Lent, we prepare ourselves for the death of royalty - our royalty - to order ourselves to the real Royalty, our God and King! These seasons of preparation redirects our attention to Jesus, at Christmas and Easter.

The Season of Lent is inseparable with Easter. It prepares and leads us to this peak of our faith. First, the sorrow of Lent in the symbol of the ash. In the Old and New Testament, a repentant sinner wears sackcloth and covers himself with ashes. The ash that is placed on our forehead symbolizes repentance. But these are outward signs of repentance. Ash Wednesday begins a journey of repentance, return to the Lord, and then supporting each other in this common enterprise of holiness.

The Lord tells us in the first reading that we should rend, not our clothes, but our hearts. We should return to the Lord with all our hearts, with fasting and weeping, begging on our knees for the Lord’s forgiveness and mercy. The kind of heart that is asked in the Lenten season is a contrite heart; its sorrow is deep and inward. We can call this feeling as a holy and blessed sorrow because this is about our relationship with God. It is not the tears that comes from an actor’s eyes, or from a broken-hearted, or from our experience of death and hurt. This time it is not about us as victims of pain; but us as the cause of another’s pain. It is about another, and this time, it is about God. It is a sorrow because we have hurt someone else and we would like to repair the damage that we have done. We cry because our relationship with another has been severed and it is constantly bleeding. We weep because we have contributed to the injustice in our society.

We are haunted by cultural and societal sins, meaning, we cannot wash our hands and say, I have not contributed to the perpetuation of discrimination, abuse, unrest, graft and corruption. When we hear the civil strife in Egypt and Libya, or scandalous corruption in the Philippine military, we know what we mean by societal evil. When Christians --- yes, not just Catholics --- put ashes on their forehead, we, as a community, declare a worldwide day of repentance. We acknowledge that our sins affect others.

Second, the return to the Father is the joy of Lent. This may come as a surprise, but it isn’t. It is like coming to home where we are assured of warmth. We look at our sins in the background of the love of God. We are sorry for our offenses because God continually loves us despite our unfaithfulness. That means when we repent, we know that God will forgive us because God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and rich in kindness.” Psalm 51 is a celebration of God’s mercy towards us. Mercy and a renewal of heart are guaranteed to those who sincerely asks for forgiveness. The Anglo-Saxon word for Lent is spring. Ash Wednesday marks the first day of our transition from winter to spring! Psalm 126 says, “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy!” Thus, our joy comes from contrition and penance. In our lives, this is illustrated by the joy we experience when someone forgives us; when having offended our parents and being forgiven, we weep with comfort, relief and joy!

Thus, the meaning of Lent becomes profoundly true in view of spring, in view of Easter. The Gospel reminds us that we should not appear fasting like the hypocrites. Our faces should be washed clean like those with assured joy. It is a tragedy that many of us remain in Lent, and forget the joy of Easter. We think Christianity is centered on sorrow, and not on joy. This is why we have contributed to a dark and gloomy Christianity. We must not miss the point of repentance. We repent because we want to return to the embrace of God, as the son returns to his loving father in the parable of Jesus. It is therefore not an accident that we call the Season of Lent a celebration. Like all celebrations, the most successful event is a result of thorough preparation. Lent prepares us for the overwhelming joy of Easter.

Finally, the journey to the Father is not just done alone. We support each other because to be holy is difficult. Thus the role of the community is important, the way our social environment forms our moral behavior. Paul exhorts us that we should work together to receive the grace of God. Thus, we should help each other create the environment for repentance and re-formation. It can mean physical space like dried twigs on church altars, simple music for masses during Lent or communal participation in reconciliation services. It also means that we can encourage one another, that indeed this is the “acceptable time” to return to God. Many people come to Ash Wednesday mass because the hope in the possibility of returning to God is enkindled. There is in our hearts parts that we hold back and needs to be re-joined to God. Or for many, the time to once more strengthen one’s faith is created when members of the Christian community work together to make the Lenten Season meaningful. Ash Wednesday then is an acceptable time, the day of our salvation!

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