Liturgical Colour : Purple/Violet
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, today we mark the beginning of this penitential season of Lent, the forty days period of preparation before the coming of the Holy Week and Easter. On this day, that is Ash Wednesday, we mark this dramatic change from the Ordinary Time into Lent by the imposition of blessed ashes on our foreheads, and also the first time in the entire Lent and Holy Week until the coming of Easter that the Alleluia is not sung, and also that of Gloria until the Holy Thursday.
There are many significance to these practices that we do during the season of Lent, and in particular today on Ash Wednesday, besides the imposition of ashes, we are also required by the Church to practice fasting as well as abstinence. Fasting is compulsory for all Christian adults of ages between eighteen and sixty, excusing only the very young and the very old. Meanwhile, abstinence is compulsory for Christians above the age of fourteen.
Fasting refers to the practice of not eating more than a full meal and two small collations or snacks each day, limiting our food intake to what is essential to maintain our lives and not indulging in the desires of our body. And abstinence usually involves refraining from eating meat, as well as from committing acts and deeds that are both wicked and sinful in nature, resisting the temptations to do our bad habits and actions that often led us to sin.
But the Lord is reminding each and every one of us, that we should not lose our focus on the intention and purpose why we observe the season of Lent, as a special time of preparation meant to reorientate ourselves and redirect our focus in life, so that we can be spiritually, physically and mentally ready for the celebration of the great mystery of Easter, the pinnacle of our faith and the story of our redemption from sin.
Why is it that the Church place this season of Lent before Holy Week and Easter? That is because throughout the Scriptures, whenever a person was about to go forth on an important mission or spiritual journey, that person usually would go through a certain period of preparation, just as what Moses did when he went up the mountain of God in Sinai, staying up there for forty days and forty nights prior to receiving the Law.
The same happened to the prophet Elijah, when he went to the desert seeking for the Lord after he was exiled from the land of Israel. He walked for forty days and forty nights without rest, with strength from the food provided by the Lord, until he reached the mountain of God in Sinai to meet the Lord and heard His will. Then, the people of Israel themselves travelled through the desert for forty years, going through a long period of self-rediscovery and atonement, after they have rebelled against God and refused to put their faith in Him, that they could not go immediately into the land promised to them, until they have completed that period of purification and waiting.
And it was told that Mary, the Mother of God spent a period of purification after her childbirth, as all women had to go through, when she was unable to enter into the Temple, due to the impurities then associated with the bleeding caused by childbirth. After a traditional period of forty days of preparation, she entered the Temple, which is still celebrated in the Traditional Calendar of the Roman Rite as the Feast of the Purification of Mary, forty days after Christmas on the second day of February each year.
And finally, the Lord Jesus Himself went to the desert right after His baptism at the Jordan River, spending forty days and forty nights fasting as a period of preparation before He officially began His earthly ministry, and which symbolically linked Him to the forty years of journey that the Israelites endured in the desert, as the atonement for their sins and disobedience against God.
That is why, brothers and sisters in Christ, fasting has long been associated with sorrow, mourning and regret. Those who fast often did so with dishevelled appearance and wearing sackcloth, a type of very coarse cloth used as sacks to contain rice and other matter, which is constantly itching on the skin and uncomfortable to wear, as a reminder of one’s physical shortcomings. Fasting is practiced as a means to reorientate one’s life to God.
However, in today’s Gospel passage, the Lord Jesus went through with the people of the dangers of misunderstanding the intention of these pious practices. This has to be understood in the context of the time, when the Lord was faced with the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law, many of whom showed off their actions before the people to show just how pious and good they were, that they might be praised by the people for their actions.
Today we heard how the Lord pointed out the flaws in their actions and how they have not done their fasting with the right intention. They fasted and made themselves to look in a very obvious manner that they have been fasting, so that the people would be in awe towards them. In reality, much of their intention and the driving factor behind their effort to fast and to do all the things that they deemed to be in accordance with the laws and traditions of the Jewish people, was because of their pride and desire to be famous.
This is why the Lord rebuked them because of their lack of real faith in Him. The Lord told the people to listen to them and their teachings, but not in what they are doing, because the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law did not practice many of the things that they themselves had preached before the people. They professed to be faithful to God, and yet, their hearts were not filled with love for God, but instead with love for themselves, and desire for worldly acclamations and glory.
Therefore, brothers and sisters in Christ, it is very important that each and every one of us Christians today reflect on how we are going to observe this most holy and blessed season of Lent, the time and wonderful opportunity that God has granted to us, as a way for us to rediscover our faith and our love for Him. This is the perfect time for us to take stock of our actions in life thus far, looking into how we have lived our lives in the past year, all the good things we have done, and even more importantly, our shortcomings and sinfulness.
Each and every one of us are sinners, because of our disobedience against God’s will. As long as we allow ourselves to be tempted, and fall into those temptations, succumbing to our ego and pride, to our greed and the wicked desires of our hearts and of our flesh, we will continue to sin against God. And unless we turn away from those sins, there will be no way forward to us, as sin has become a great obstacle in our way towards the Lord and His promise of eternal life.
We are reminded that first of all, the Lord’s love and mercy is always readily available for all of us. He is always ever compassionate, loving and merciful towards us, and even though we have often been disobedient and wayward, but He is always ever faithful to the Covenant that He has established with us. That is why this season of Lent is meant as a time for us to truly stop and think, and discern carefully how we want to carry on living our lives from now on.
And we fast as well as abstaining from wicked deeds, not because we want to be praised and acclaimed by other people, as what many of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law had done, but because we truly recognise how sinful each and every one of us are, and how weak we are in our flesh, easily tempted and easily falling into sin. Because of this, we want to restrain ourselves and learn to control our many avenues of temptation, by which we have fallen again and again, into disobedience against God.
Today, as the blessed ashes is imposed on our foreheads, let the blessed ashes be a reminder to each and every one of us, that we truly are mortals and sinners, and by our sins we have deserved to perish and die, and all of us will indeed one day have to face death, as a certainty that no one can avoid at all. But at the same time, let us remember that through the liturgy of Ash Wednesday God through His Church is also calling us to turn away from our sins and repent with sincerity.
As the blessed ashes came from the burning of the blessed palms used at Palm Sunday last year, they remind us of our own mortality, and of the urgency by which each and every one of us must act, to get rid from ourselves the sins that have tainted us. We will perish for sure unless we put our trust in God and turn towards His merciful love. And the blessed ashes is also placed on our foreheads in the shape of the cross, as a reminder that our fasting and abstinence in this season of Lent, is to prepare us to enter into the great mystery of the Holy Week and then Easter, when the Lord saves us by His ultimate sacrifice on the cross.
Therefore, brothers and sisters in Christ, let us all begin this blessed season of Lent, by making use of every opportunities given to us, that we will not waste this chance that God has given us, for us to change and repent from our wicked ways. God wants us all to receive His salvation, and that is why, through His Church, He is preparing us in our hearts and minds, that we may rediscover our true love for Him, and distance ourselves from whatever is wicked and unworthy of Him in our every actions and deeds.
May God guide us always through our journey of faith in this season of Lent, and may our fast and abstinence help us to reorientate ourselves in life, and find for ourselves a new meaning in life, that is to love God and to serve Him every living moments of our life. Amen.