This is the first day of Lent. It is not a day of obligation; it is a day of Fast (for those between the ages of 18 and 59) ad Abstinence (for 14 years of age or older). The most symbolic liturgical gesture of the day is the signing of the cross with ashes on the forehead of worshipers. The ashes are blessed and imposed on the faithful within the Mass or the Liturgy of the Word, never outside any penitential action.
Ashes are a familiar Christian symbol. They indicate a variety of realities. Unbecoming, dark and lifeless, they represent what is reality without God. They also represent the death of something through fire. The ashes of Ash Wednesday carry a twofold reminder: “Remember, man, you are dust and to dust you will return.” This outward popular symbol of private or public sorrow, sadness or penance is a proof of humility, the result of human frailty, a remembrance of our mortality, that we are made of dust and will return to dust. But also: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” This second formula allows another concept more in keeping with the Lenten period, namely, penance, contrition, and the striving after perfection. As Joel says: Return to me with your whole heart. And Paul: We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. And you shall live.
The Mass’ Readings:
- 1st) When Joel spoke the prophecy, the people were suffering from a great plague of locusts. He saw the plague not only as a punishment for sin, but also as a warning that God would come one day in judgment; therefore, he called all the people to repentance. Prophet Joel desires to arouse two interior movements which constitute true penitence: the desire of conversion and confidence in God. Conversion: To turn away from one’s self for the sake of turning towards God... Conversion is thus a liberation. The prophet points to the fact that works of penance, if not related to that inner conversion to God in love, are worthless. “Tear your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God”.
- 2nd) St. Paul insists on conversion now! “God made him [Jesus] who did not know sin, to be sin” that is, Jesus became the Lamb of God who took away our sins. Forgiveness is available. Ask for it now! “Now is the acceptable time!” If conversion is a necessity, work on it now! Don’t wait till tomorrow, because you are dust and to dust you will return. And this can happen at the moment you least expect it.
- 3rd) Matthew’s message is similar to the one of Joel: External works of penance have no value in themselves. You must relate them to the real penance, your conversion to God. The danger of hypocrisy is always present. It is nobody’s business to know what you give up for Lent. It is enough that your heavenly Father sees it and you relate it to a constant conversion to love! What gives value to our actions is our intention. The best action can be spoiled by a bad intention.
The Gospel shows the rich program of conversion and the basic conditions of our conversion. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving, like three legs of a tripod, make up the traditional practices of Lent. Prayer nourishes our the spirit. Lent is a time when we concentrate our prayer on the double meaning of this season: conversion from our sinful ways and renewal of our baptismal promises. Participating in the Eucharist and praying over the Scripture readings are helpful ways of prayerfully entering into the season... Fasting is an integral part of Lent. Traditionally it has included reducing the amount of food we eat and abstaining from meat. But why do we fast? Not because our bodies and appetites are something evil that need to be punished, but to allow our physical hunger to remind us of our spiritual hunger, our need for God. Our Lenten fasting is modeled on Jesus’ 40-day fast in the desert. Finally, works of charity enlarge our hearts as we commit ourselves to the good of others: the needy, the sick, the helpless, the migrant, the abandoned, etc., etc.
All these external signs will help us to beguin the journey of conversion, that will reach its goal in the celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation during the days leading to Easter.