Homily for Ash Wednesday Year A
Theme: RIGHT THING, RIGHT INTENTION
By: Fr. Gerald M. Musa
Homily for Wednesday February 26 2020
LENT: Lent is a special season, which begins with Ash Wednesday and last for 40 days, excluding Sundays. The period of 40 days is very significant as it reflects the 40 days of Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:18); Elijah’s 40 days on Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:8); 40 days of Flood in the days of Noah (Genesis 7:4); 40 years of Israel’s journey to the Promised Land; 40 days ultimatum for repentance given to the people of Nineveh by Jonah (Jonah 3:4). The season of Lent is also called season of grace because it offers an opportunity to purify the heart, renew the spirit and regain the grace of God in the journey of life. Since we are even more open to receive the grace of God during this season, St. Paul advises us to make the best use of the grace and not to receive it in vain (1 Corinthians 6:1).
ASH: The first day of the Lenten season is called Ash Wednesday because of the symbolic use of Ash on the foreheads of believers. The Ash reminds all human beings of their mortal nature. The words used in applying the Ash: “You are dust and unto dust shall you return” points to the book of Genesis where God fashioned Adam with dust (Genesis 3:19).
REPENTANCE: The season of Lent is also a season of repentance and so the alternative words used in placing the ash on the forehead is: “Repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15). The Ash is also a symbol of repentance as some biblical passages indicate. In ancient times people expressed repentance by tearing their garments, wearing sackclothes and sprinkling ashes on their foreheads (cf. Numbers 19:9; Jonah 3:6).
The prophet Joel called his people to repentance with a loud voice saying:
Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God. For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment (Joel 2:13).
Further, Psalm 51, a profound prayer for repentance and purification earnestly asks God to wash away our guilt and cleanse us from our sins.
SPIRITUAL EXERCISE: Moreover, the season of Lent is also a season of intensive spiritual exercises. In our modern society today, we embark on all kinds of physical exercises to strengthen the muscles, to enhance our physical well being, to maintain physical and mental fitness – to keep a healthy mind in a healthy body (mens sana in corporis sano). The spiritual exercises of Lent include Prayers, Fasting and Almsgiving. Jesus gives some very helpful instructions on how to pray, give alms and fast.
PRAYERS: Jesus says, “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites…but, go to your inner room” (Matthew 6:6). This is to say that all prayer must come from the heart (inner room) and must be in spirit and in truth and not just for a show. Soren Kierkegaard the existentialist philosopher says, “Prayer does not mean listening to yourself speak; praying means calming down and being still and waiting until you hear God. Therefore, prayer has to do with inner disposition and right attitude.
ALMSGIVING: It is in a common human habit to advertise and publicise charitable deeds. Sometimes, when we do so we embarrass the vulnerable receiver. Some people rightly say the best form of charity is that which the giver does not know who the receiver is. Otherwise, the giver would expect the receiver to be eternally grateful. During the time of political campaigns we see how politician suddenly become philanthropists. Jesus is aware of how the human mind works and so he emphatically says, “When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you” (Matthew 6:3).
FASTING: Fasting from food and material pleasure is one of the useful spiritual exercises of Lent. Fasting from food is not easy and that is why people generally look miserable when they are fasting. Jesus prescribes a new attitude to fasting saying, “When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting” (Matthew 6:17). Fasting is not limited to food alone, but fasting from sin and some bad habits can even be more challenging. Again, more often than not, we find it easier to fast for the sake of dieting than to fast for spiritual growth. Pope St. Leo the Great explains a deeper meaning of fasting when he says, “Fasting is not simply a reduction in our food, but the elimination of our evil habits.” In other words, fasting is about detaching ourselves from some worldly pleasures, activities and exercises in order to focus more on our relationship with God and on charitable deeds.
When religion becomes a game of pretense we practice it in order to impress others and we do things out of a deep desire for praise, approval and applause. The instructions of Jesus regarding our spiritual exercises can be summarized as “Do the right thing with the right intention.” St. Paul boldly says to the Galatians, “Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? …If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).
I wish you a very fruitful Lenten Season.