Ash Wednesday: A, B, C
Jl 2:12-18; Cor 5:20 – 6:2; Mt 6:1-6, 16-18
Introduction: This is a homily/Scripture reflection in a book, titled: ‘Every Week God Speaks We Respond’, Cycle C, intended to be published in the future by Reverend John Tran Binh Trong.
It was published in Vietnamese in the US 2008 and republished in Viet Nam 2011. To keep the author’s writing style, this homily has not been edited and may not be by a hired hand. However, if readers would like to point out mistake(s) in spelling and grammar and/or to suggest English phrases and expressions, it would be greatly appreciated by the author, whose English is not his mother tongue and who did not live in the US until his adulthood. Passive sentences are used intentionally in this context as to avoid using the first personal pronoun ‘I’ when applicable. That might be associated with any idea of egotism, in accord with the French saying, known as: ‘Le moi est haissable’ (The ego is detestable).
Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, lasting forty days and nights, to commemorate forty days and nights Jesus prayed in the wilderness (Mt 4:2). Today at the signing with ashes, the priest celebrant reminds us: Remember, man, you are dust, and to dust you shall return (Gen 3:19). The book of Genesis records: The Lord God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life and so man became a living being (Gen 2:7). Thus, at death, man returns to dust. If one thinks of cremation, then the image of man returning to dust is more appropriate to describe the fate of man. For the prophets in the Old Testament, the signing of ashes is a sign of repentance and return to the Lord.
In the United States, people come to mass on Ash Wednesday in good number, almost like Sunday, even though it is not a holy day of obligation, in order to be signed with ashes on the forehead in the form of the cross. Some priests signed a small cross with ashes; some signed a big one. People displayed ashes on their forehead in public and their offices. Some Protestants also came to catholic churches to receive ashes.
The traditional works the Church teaches in Lent is prayer, penance and works of charity. Prayer consists of common prayer and private prayer at home, in church or in an appropriate place. Attending mass, reading the scripture and reflection are also prayer. In today’s Gospel, Jesus teaches us: Whenever you pray, go to your room, close your door, and pray to your Father in private (Mt 6:6). Should we follow the teaching of Jesus literally by going into our room with a closed door to pray?
We need to understand that Jesus spoke this to respond to the Pharisees who wanted others to be aware of their prayers and consider them as holy. Not like the Pharisees’ ways of prayer, we need to come to church to express our faith in God, to share our faith with others and to support those with weak faith. Jesus himself went up to the temple to pray publicly, meaning others saw him pray. According to Saint Ambrose’s interpretation, to go into our room to pray means to go into the inner room of our heart, where we harbor thoughts and feelings. This inner room can always go with us. Jesus tells the apostles: Be on guard and pray that you may not undergo the test (Mt 26:4l). When the apostles asked Jesus why they could not expel a mute spirit from the boy, Jesus responded: This kind you can drive out only by prayer (Mk 9:29).
The second traditional work during Lent is penance. Penance consists of fast, abstinence, sacrifice and self-denial. After the second Vatican Council, the Lenten regulations have been simplified: obligatory abstinence is observed on Lenten Fridays and fast with abstinence on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. That makes people think that fast and abstinence have been simplified. However, if we go deeper, we can find out it is not so. These days many Catholics should reexamine their fast and abstinence. Living in an industrial, consuming society, there is a surplus of meat. Therefore, to eat fish is also good for health. To abstain from meat is not a big sacrifice for those who like seafood. How can it be called a sacrifice if we eat lobster - expensive and delicious - as a way of abstinence from meat?
The advantage of fast is not only to maintain physical health, but also to help increase spiritual strength as to fight temptations. If we abstain from food only to stay physically healthy or in shape, to control blood pressure or reduce high cholesterol, then our fast and abstinence have no spiritual values. Thus, if we want spiritual values, we have to bring spiritual motive to our fast and abstinence. The purpose of fast and abstinence is to create a vacuum space in the stomach as to help us feel an emptiness in life and thus to invite God to come and fill the emptiness in life. In other words, the purpose of fast and abstinence is for our mind to be purified as to lift us up spiritually. At the beginning of fast, we would feel hungry. With times passed, we will get used to it. If we still feel hungry, then to drink some hot water should help.
Besides, the Church wants the faithful to fast voluntarily on different days. Those who think the Lenten regulations for Catholics are strictly should try to find out the way the Buddhists and Muslims fast. Besides abstaining from food and drink, the Church wants the faithful to watch our language, to control our tongue, our eyes and ears as to speak, look and hear only what is decent and healthy mentally and spiritually. The faithful need to remember God uses the prophet Isaiah to warn those who fast like this: Your fast ends in quarrelling and fighting, striking with wicked claw (Is 58:4).
A certain priest on his trip to visit Vietnam was given three toy monkeys as gifts, made out of baked clay, looking artistically. One monkey covers his eyes with both hands, one did his his ears, one did his mouth, meaning not to look, not to hear, and not to speak, The priest brought the gifts home for displaying in his room to remind him of watching his eyes, his ears and mouth.
The third traditional work is works of charity, instead of using the word almsgiving. About doing works of charity, Jesus teaches us not to blow a trumpet before us as a hypocrite does to receive praise from others. Jesus warns those who do works of charity in order to boast and get praise instead of giving glory to God. For God to be praised, Jesus tells us our light must shine so that others might see and praise God. If we let others praise ourselves, we would be rewarded already, and would have no more merit. If not being watchful, we might want to get credit for things done in the name of charity instead of giving glory to God.
To be called works of charity, we need to share what is ours, to give away part of ourselves, instead of giving away what is not used. If we only give away our clothes, which we do not use, how can it be called a work of charity? In summary during Lent, the faithful are invited to reform their lives and hearts by returning toward God so as to journey with Christ on the way of the cross, and to go up to Calvary on Good Friday and to share the joyful resurrection with Jesus on Easter Sunday.
A prayer asking God’s blessings for works during Lent:
Oh God, we thank you for this holy season of Lent.
Teach me how to live the spirit of Lent:
by prayers, sacrifice, fast, abstinence and self- denial
and works of charity that would be acceptable to you.
Grant that I may reconcile with you
through the sacrament of penance
as to return to you and live in grace with you. Amen.John Tran Binh Trong
John Tran BInh Trong