Readings: Joel 2:12-18; 2 Corinthians 5:20 – 6:2; Matthew 6:1-6; 16-18
A story is told of a man, who while driving a car met with a terrible accident. A few people soon gathered at the place of the accident and came forward to offer him immediate help that he needed. But the man said , “Oh! There’s nothing wrong with me.” “But sir, you’ve just been in a terrible car accident. You’re bleeding and have some deep bruises. There may be internal damage!” someone from the crowd said. But the man said again, “There’s nothing wrong with me!” Another man then suggested, “At least have a doctor check you out, sir. We have an ambulance right here – it wouldn’t take very long.” But the man again insisted, “I told you, there’s nothing wrong with me!” And he walked away from the car accident. After this, his wife, when she heard of her husband’s accident came there, picked him up and drove him home. Later, he died from internal bleeding.
‘There’s nothing wrong with me‘ can be a dangerous statement to make. Spiritually, it is probably the worst thing a person could possibly say. For a person to stand before God and say, ‘There’s nothing wrong with me’ – that’s incompatible with Christianity, and unacceptable to God. Man is sinful and there is always something wrong with him. So, a true Christian is someone who humbly stands before God and says, “Be merciful, O Lord, for I have sinned.”
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Season of Lent. Lent is a period of preparation for Easter, and it’s a season of the Church’s year where the emphasis is on penitence. The liturgy on Ash Wednesday, when it comes round every year, always links up two important aspects of Christian belief and Christian life.
The ashes themselves, which are distributed during the Mass, symbolize our mortality, the fact that one day we will depart from this life. When he’s giving out the ashes the priest says: “Remember, man, you are dust, and to dust you shall return”. Then he marks the sign of the cross with the ashes on each person’s forehead.
At the end of the day, our time here on earth is very short. The traditional Christian view of things describes our earthly life as a pilgrimage through a foreign land, a period of exile which lasts until we reach our true home and our true destiny: life in complete communion with God himself.
The other aspect of Ash Wednesday follows on from that. Our life on earth isn’t only a pilgrimage towards that goal, it’s a preparation for it. God is available to us now, not just in the future. He calls us into friendship with him now. The very fact that our time here on earth is short means that the call is urgent – “come back to me with all your heart,” says the prophet Joel – speaking on behalf of God – “with fasting, and weeping and mourning”.
In the gospel, Jesus gives his disciples some precise instructions about what to do to help to bring about that turning-back to God that Joel was appealing for.
First of all he recommends alms giving: in its most general sense, caring for other people, setting aside some of our own time or money or any other resource that we might have, especially for those suffering hardship of any kind. You might remember how Jesus said that even giving a cup of water to someone who is thirsty is the sort of gesture that will win us a place in God’s Kingdom.
Then Jesus reminds his followers how important it is to pray, how important it is to open our minds and our hearts to God and put our relationship with him on a stronger footing. We’ve got to remember about prayer is that it’s not something we do for God’s sake or to benefit God. It’s something we do for our sake, and it benefits us. The more we get into the habit of praying regularly, turning to God and asking him for his presence and his help, or asking him to look after other people in some way, the more we’re opening ourselves to God’s influence on us, and the more we become like God.
And then, last of all, Christ mentions fasting: not only the idea of giving up food, or eating less – although that is an important spiritual practice in itself – but more generally having an element of self-denial and sacrifice in our spiritual life, partly for the sake of discipline and self-control, but mainly to help us remove our attachment to the things that interfere with us having a greater attachment to God.
“Then,” Jesus says, when you do these things, “your Father , who sees what you do in secret, will reward you”.
So those are the penitential themes which emerge in the Ash Wednesday Mass, and which mark the whole of the season of Lent, really. Let’s express our willingness to enter into that spirit of penitence, especially for the six weeks or so of Lent, when we come forward and receive the ashes on our foreheads later in the today’s Mass. Let us humble ourselves before God and pray, “Be merciful, O Lord, for I have sinned.”