Joel 2:12-18; 2 Cor 5:20-6:2; Mt 6:1-6, 16-18
To help us understand the significance of lent the Church makes use of a sign, the sign of ashes. Ashe is blessed and imposed on the forehead of each one of us.
Ash is an object of daily contact. Every one, young or old, come in contact with ash or dust, and everyone knows that it is one of the things of least importance. So the church reminds its members that we are created from Ash and we have to return to ash. In this short span of life the physical body that is the composition hash has been glorified, and made prominent by the presence of the spirit that gives the life breath to the body. So the season of lent reminds us to subdue the desires of the flesh to the demands of the spirit.
Ash is used as a symbol to remind us of our weakness. There have been leaders who wielded enormous power, but only for a short span of life. Then they had to submit to the natural course of death and disintegration. TenzingNorgay conquered the highest peak, the Himalayas. But when his turn arrived he was conquered by death. Alexander the Great conquered the ends of the then known world. But when his turn came, he had to submit to the unconquerable enemy, death. Sir Ronald Ross conquered, but when his turn came he was conquered by the great enemy, death. All of them returned to dust and decay. So, ash reminds us today that we are week human beings who are granted a short life on this earth.
Realizing this inevitable reality the church places its demands on us: “turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel.” The sign of turning away from sin is indulging in good work. To the Jew the three great cardinal works of religious life were, alms giving, prayer and fasting. In the season of lent the church wants us too to practice these virtue.
It is a strange fact that these three great cardinal good works are done from wrong motives. So Jesus warned his audience, when these things were done with the sole intention of bringing glory to the doer their value was lost.
A man may give arms just to demonstrate his generosity. A man may pray just to make an impression on his fellow men. His praying may simply be an attempt to demonstrate his exceptional piety. A man may fast, not really to humble himself in the sight of God, but to show the world what a splendid self-disciplined character he has. A man may practise good works simply to win praise from men. Then they already had their reward from men, and he does not leave to God a chance to reward him.
There was a rabbinic saying, “Greater is he who gives alms than he who offers all sacrifices.” But often we are tempted to make a show of our generosity. J. J. Westein quotes an eastern custom from the ancient days. “In the east water is so scarce that sometimes it had to be bought. When a man wanted to do a good act, he went to the water-carriers and instructed him: ‘Give the thirsty a drink.’ When the water carrier gave water to the thirsty, the man stood near him and asked,” Bless me, who gave you this drink.” Jesus teaches that he had already enjoyed his reward. Our works of charity must be done in secret. So that God who sees our work will reward us. Johnson, in his own days of poverty, went on slipping pennies into the hands of the waifs and strays that were sleeping in the doorways because they had nowhere else to go. Once Jonson was asked how he could have bear to have his house filled with necessitous and undeserving people. Johnson answered: “If I did not assist them no one else would, and they must not be lost for want.” Here we see real giving. A giving that flows from the heart. A giving that is the fruit selflessness. This is what the church demands us in the season of lent.
Secondly, the season of lent reminds us practice the habit of fasting. To this day in the East fasting is an essential part of religious life. In many cases fasting was a preparation for revelation. Moses fasted for forty days and forty nights before he received the revelation on the Mount Sinai. Daniel fasted as he awaited God’s word. Jesus Himself fasted as he received the ordeal of temptation. St Francis spent days in fast as he waited for the revelation of God. When the body is most disciplined, the mental spiritual faculties become most alert. Fasting is good for self-discipline, and it preserves from becoming the slaves of habit. Above all fasting helps us understand the plight of the needy, and to appreciate things all the more. But fasting has gone completely out of the practice of the contemporary man. We should practice it in our own way. And the reason for it is:
“So that earth’s bliss may be our guide,
And not our chain.”
Thirdly, the season of lent reminds us to spend time in prayer. One of the loveliest rabbinic says is, “He who prays within his house surrounds it with a wall that is stronger than iron.” Jesus emphasized the importance of prayer in His teaching and by His example. In fact, Jesus laid down two great rules for prayer. All prayer must be offered to God, and we must always remember that the God to whom we pray is a God of love, who is ready to answer.
As Lent is a time to go back to god, let us join with our brothers and sisters in almsgiving, fasting and prayer. May God bless our efforts.