FEASTING ON THE WORD
"If you meditate on the Scriptures it will appear to you in its brilliant splendor." ―St. Pio of Pietrelcina
Ash Wednesday (B)
Joel 2:12-18 | Psalm 51:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 14, 17 | 2 Corinthians 5:20—6:2 | Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
Today is Ash Wednesday. After the Gospel we will again be walking around wearing dirty black smudges. Palm ashes will be blessed, mixed with either holy oil or water, and marked with the sign of the cross on the forehead or sprinkled on the head. The minister, while imposing the ashes says, "Remember, man that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return" (Cf. Gen. 3:19) or "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel" (Mark 1:15). Whatever formulary is used, it's message is simple: "Alalahanin mo, mamamatay ka rin!" (Remember that you will die). We are reminded of our mortality and our need to live faithfully in this world. Life is short so we have to live life well. In ancient days, people marked times of fasting, prayer, repentance, and remorse by placing ashes on their foreheads. The custom was prevalent in early days of Judaism: as found in 2 Samuel 13:19, Esther 4:1-3, Job 42:6, and Jeremiah 6:26. Ashes are sacramentals. We express our brokenness and our readiness to change when we receive the ashes.
A man had a heart attack and is brought to the hospital emergency room. The doctor tells him that he will not live unless he has a heart transplant right away. Another doctor runs into the room and says, "you're in luck, two hearts just became available, so you will get to choose which one you want. One belongs to a priest and the other to a politician". The man quickly responds, "the politician's". The doctor says, "Wait! Don't you want to know a little about them before you make your decision?" The man says, "I already know enough. We all know that the priest's is a bleeding heart and the politician probably never used his. So I'll take the politician's!"
The prophet Joel, in our first reading, challenges God's people who have become prodigal sons and daughters, to weep, mourn, and fast to avert impending calamity. I love the words he uses. He begs us, "Rend your hearts, not your garments." The Hebrew custom of tearing one’s garment was an expression of extraordinary emotion, usually of grief, terror, or horror. But instead of tearing their garments, or even changing them, the prophet Joel is pleading with them to do the same with their hearts. To repent with a very real and sincere change of heart. Garment rending and other outward signs of religious emotion, are easily manifested and are frequently hypocritical; but to feel true repentance is far more difficult. Joel’s message still rings true today. God has always demanded that we first give to him our hearts. He is making the first move, begging us to come home to his gracious and merciful embrace.
Bebeladán, a barangay in a remote portion of El Nido, Palawan was completely isolated for some time. But recently Alley Sitio Bolabod was cut through the wilderness to reach it. Bebeladán now has one road leading into it, and thus, only one road leading out. If someone would travel the unpaved road for hours to get into Bebeladán, there is only one way he or she could leave; by turning around. Each of us, by birth, arrives in a town called Sin. As in Bebeladán, there is only one way out; a road built by God himself. But in order to take that road, one must first turn around. That complete "about face" is what the Bible calls repentance, and without it, there’s no way out of town.
In the second reading, the Apostle Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians, encourages us to be reconciled and accept God's forgiveness in Christ now. There is no time like the present. Now is the right time to return to God and to turn to the people around us. Who can be sure that they will have more time to "play games" with God? Death could come at any time and so could the Lord's return. Quoting Isaiah 49:8, he urges us to respond faithfully to God's grace, now, at this very moment, before the Lord returns. Delaying repentance robs us of precious time here on earth to be all that we can be for the glory of God and be a blessing to the body of Christ.
What are you giving up for Lent? Fr. Joel, a priest ministering in Paco, Manila was walking down an alley one evening on his way home when Rico, a young man, came down the alley behind him and poked a knife against his back. "Give me your money," the young man said. Fr. Joel opened his jacket and reached into an inner pocket to remove his wallet, exposing his clerical collar. "Oh, I'm sorry, Father," said Rico, the young man, "I didn't see your collar. I don't want your money." Trembling from the scare, the priest removed a cigarette from his shirt pocket and offered it to the young man. "Here," he said. "Have a cigar." "Oh, no, I can't do that," the young man replied, "I gave them up for Lent".
In the Gospel today, Jesus poses an unusual challenge as we begin the season of Lent. He gave three examples of acts of personal piety that should be offered in secret, in the private lives of Christians, in order not to divert glory to God into glory to self: Almsgiving, Prayer, and Fasting. The scripture is clear that the condition of our heart is critical in performing acts of personal piety. He does not preclude doing these in public but the interior disposition must still be for love of others and not love of self. These works of personal piety combat the threefold concupiscence enumerated in 1 John 2:16. Almsgiving fights the lust of the eyes because giving away our money makes us less able to buy fancy things. It forces us to become more detached from worldly objects, so we’ll be less susceptible to temptations that come from them. Prayer combats Pride, because prayer is the humble acknowledgement that we need God’s help, that we cannot do it on our own. Fasting combats the Lust of the Flesh, teaching us to have control over our physical appetites like food, sex, drugs, comfort, etc. Outward practices of penance have no value unless our interior attitude corresponds to our outward practice of helping our neighbor, praying and doing penance. All almsgiving and acts of charity, all praying, and all fasting and any mortifications we do, must be founded upon a rending of our hearts. And the Season of Lent is the time to do this. It is the "very acceptable time." It is, in fact, the day of salvation.
Jeff Jacinto, PhD, DHum