Matthew 6:1-6; 16-18 (Ash Wednesday)
I hated Ash Wednesday while I was growing up. As soon as I was marked with the ash on my forehead, I felt bound to give up a lot of conveniences. I felt compelled to fulfill the Lenten practices: abstinence from meat on Fridays, giving up my favorite stuff during the whole Lenten season, fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, no television shows on Holy Thursday and Good Friday except for religious shows that were oft-repeated year after year, and the constant reprimand from my grandmother for the boisterous laughter and rough play during the Holy Week. I cannot forget what Lola used to say, “How dare you have fun while our Lord is going through suffering, pain, and death!” This guilt-tripping reminder further aggravated the sense of deprivation that the Lenten Season brought every year.
But should Lent actually make us feel that way? Let us look at the readings today. The First Reading from the prophet Joel seems to affirm the experience of deprivation: “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” “Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast… Let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her chamber. Let the priests, who minister before the Lord, weep between the portico and the altar.” The Responsorial Psalm also appears to promote a sense of melancholy. “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.”
Lest we be misguided to believe that Lent is indeed entirely a season for melancholia and guilt-trip, we need to read the First Reading and the Psalm again and then see them in the light of the Gospel and the Second Reading. The prophet Joel’s exhortation to the Israelites does not just end with guilt trip or self-flagellation. This sense of remorse, of rending hearts instead of garments is but a mere means towards realizing God’s mercy—graciousness, compassion, slowness to anger and abundant love among the Israelites. Psalm 51 also known as King David’s prayer of forgiveness is not just about beating himself badly for the terrible sins he committed as God’s anointed. This prayer is actually a yearning for the Lord to “restore to [him] the joy of [God’s] salvation and [to] grant [him] a willing spirit, to sustain [him].”
Furthermore, the Gospel and the Second Reading validate the intent of the prophet Joel and King David. St. Paul exhorts the Corinthians not to receive the grace of God’s reconciliation in vain. It is necessary to go through contrition in order to fully receive God’s grace. God, through Jesus Christ, has only one desire, that we be made right before God. He initiates the reconciliation process by going as far as sacrificing his Son for us. We cannot but respond with contrite hearts. Jesus, in the Gospel today, teaches us two important points. First, that contrition is more than the superficiality of appearing somber, of pretending sacrifice, of showcasing righteousness . Contrition is not something imposed, nor is it an end in itself; rather, it springs from the experience of being loved unconditionally. It triggers within us the desire to love in return because of the experience of being loved. Second, Jesus stresses the threefold Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and alms-giving. Prayer attunes us to God’s love actively working in our lives. Fasting frees us from attachments that hinder us from experiencing God’s love and loving God in return. Alms-giving enfleshes the experience of God’s love towards others.
More than ushering a season of deprivation, Ash Wednesday, therefore, brings about the season of restoration of the joy of God’s salvation. The various Lenten practices, when seen from the lens of love rather than deprivation or obligation, open us up to a more profound experience of God’s mercy and compassion.
As we have our foreheads marked with ashes today, let us remind ourselves: More than being deprived of our comforts and conveniences, the season of Lent opens us up to the reality that God never gives up on us. He continues to give us opportunities to free ourselves from the things that mislead us and draw us away from Him. Lent allows us to reorient our lives and focus once more to what is essential—our relationship with God, through prayer, fasting and alms-giving.