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"Be Merciful, O Lord, For We Have Sinned": Ash Wednesday 2018

I pray that this essay will offer some sustenance for reflection as we begin our journey through Lent. The following quotation is food for thought:

“Reconciliation is a process. It is a long and often difficult road through truth and justice aimed at the restoration of broken relationships, in order to establish a new reconciled reality.” (Cas Wepener, University of Pretoria; From Fast to Feast: Insights into the process of reconciliation from South Africa).

Reconciliation involves a change in the relationship between God and man or man and man; it is a road map for our Lenten journey (ref. Romans 5:10).

From Fast to Feast? Maybe ‘From Feast to Fast’ is more appropriate for us. Considering that we celebrate Mardi Gras (“Fat Tuesday” in French) and St. Valentine’s Day just before Ash Wednesday, it’s like killing two birds with one stone, as the cliché goes. Well, we have bad news and good news; first the ‘good news.’ Mardi Gras is on Tuesday, February 13 - all day till the wee hours. The ‘bad news’ is, Valentine’s Day falls on February 14, the same day as Ash Wednesday (a somber day of prayer, fast and abstinence).

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the Lenten Season, a day of universal fast and abstinence for Christians all over the world. Palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday services are burned to create ashes. These ashes are blessed and used to mark the sign of the Cross on our foreheads. With this sign we begin a period of preparation for the death of Christ on Good Friday and a celebration of His Resurrection on Easter Sunday.

The first day of Lent changes every year in accordance to the lunar calendar, like Easter Sunday. Lent is generally a 40-day fast and prayer period, that should end on the Thursday before Easter Sunday (March 29 this year) which is known as Holy Thursday, or Maundy Thursday. The 40 dayperiod reflects when Jesus fasted and suffered in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights, before He started His ministry. The Prophet Joel sets the pace for our Lenten journey: “…rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” [Joel 2:13].

Ash Wednesday is an important day on the African continent, with its multicultural countries of diverse religions and cults. In some African countries, many churches or religions that are divided on doctrinal grounds seemly worship together on this day. As a result, Ash Wednesday morning Mass at St. Mulumba Catholic Church (my former parish in Monrovia, Liberia), is unusually crammed with more than its regular parishioners: Protestants, Catholics, Muslims as well as the undecided come to ‘receive the ashes’.

The local belief is that the imposition of the ashes on the forehead by the priest secures protection from evil and ensures blessing, forgiveness, and healing from the God who is Father of us all. Christians believe that the ashes represent repentance and show that they have repented for their sins and are prepared for a ‘Holy death’, like Jesus. This later belief is supported by the words the priest says as he draws the crosses on to people’s foreheads: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

During this season, we are encouraged to be better Christians by resolving to pay attention to our spiritual life. Yes. I know that many of us did make New Year’s resolutions for 2018 (so help me God) and God Himself knows how difficult it has been so far to live by these ‘self-imposed’ regulations. No. I’m not suggesting that you overburden yourself with more (than you can carry). This season, however, offers a second chance, a unique opportunity so that we may be unbound in conscience to accomplish those well-intentioned resolutions of ours.

I’m aware that many of you are already familiar with that perennial stressed out, overrated and boring sermon of priests telling you to do penance and go to Church on Sundays. But today, the Psalmist is telling us, “Blessed is the person whose disobedience is forgiven and whose sin is pardoned. Blessed is the person whom the Lord no longer accuses of sin and who has no deceitful thoughts” [Ps 32:1-2 - God’s Word Translation].

At my parish in Africa, Ash Wednesday presents an excellent opportunity to remind the congregation about their Lenten responsibilities: to fast, pray, give alms and do works of charity. Because, it is by these acts that we renew our baptismal promises, to become better Christians by denouncing the tempter, Satan and all his worldly promises. Beware, however, of the human condition. None of us will achieve all that is expected during this Lent. You will be tempted, but take courage and let the Spirit lead you, like it did Jesus, so that you too will resist the many temptations and be strengthened to say, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only Him.’” [Mt. 4:10].

Fr. Matthew A. B. Cole, SMA

(ed. First published March 5th, 2017

SMA Fathers 23 Bliss Avenue, NJ)



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