By Most Rev. John Akin Oyejola
ASH Wednesday is the beginning of annual Lenten observance. It is the day when we bless and distribute ashes as a sign of repentance in the Catholic Church. The practice itself dates back to the Old Testament; as a matter of fact, the heart of a sinner is compared with dust. Prophet Isaiah described an idolater as one whose heart hankers after ashes cf. Is. 44: 20. Prophet Joel called on people of his time to repent in sackcloth and ashes, Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17. The ash is a symbol of repentance, a public admittance of guilt before God.
The ceremony of “The Ash Wednesday” places us in the shadow of death, with the salutary suggestion that we take a good look at ourselves, our specific vocations, and measure our present conditions and plans against the certainty of death. We are reminded that on earth we do not have a “permanent city”, but we seek for that “city of God” that is to come (Heb. 13:14).
We are reminded that all the valid and urgent preoccupations of our life in time must be subordinated to and evaluated in terms of life and eternity. We are reminded that the life span of the human person is short and fleeting, and that the real man, which is the soul, lives beyond the grave. Finally, we are called upon to repent and welcome the message of salvation.
During the imposition of the ashes on the foreheads of believers, which signifies repentance, the priest says either of two things: “Repent and believe the Good News” or “dust you are to dust you will return.” This is a time of penance, purification and conversion. By penance we show God through our actions, that we are sorry for our poor conditions of life and personal offences. By purification we purge ourselves of all those inordinate desires and attitudes that belie us of our true Christian calling. By conversion we renounce all other values that contest the centrality of Jesus Christ in our quest for eternal life, and wholeheartedly believe the Good News as a necessary principle for daily living.
All through the Lenten season, fasting and abstinence are obligatory for all Catholics who are sixteen years and above. However, those above sixty years and those with health conditions that will affect the wellbeing of those involved are exempted. The rule is that one full meal is allowed in a day. The Church however places emphasis on fasting and abstinence from sins and human shortcomings during this period with extra efforts made in prayer life, penance and almsgiving.
According to the ancient traditions of the Church, there are four important things to be given attention during the Lenten observance namely: Prayer, repentance, fasting and charity.
Prayer is the act of lifting up our hearts to God, a two-way communication between us and God. We reach out to God and he answers in his own way and time. The solemn nature of Lenten season makes prayer a wonderful exercise for the serious followers of Christ.
Fasting and abstinence are good because they help nourish the spiritual growth of the individual person and strengthen the will of everyone to overcome bodily temptations and seduction of the soul by the evil one. Corporal works of mercy during this period is a required exercise, when we observe fasting and abstinence, whatever we abstain from is expected to be given to the poor and needy and not food items to be consumed later or money saved for later use.
Finally, we must always remember that the kind of fasting that the Lord asks of us is to “break the fetters of injustice and loosening the thongs of the yoke, setting the oppressed free and breaking every yoke. We are to share our food with the hungry, to house the homeless and clothe the naked (Is.58:6-7).
We are human being created in the image and likeness of God, destined for love and must reflect that in our daily activities with one another. May the season of Lent renew our inner being and draw us closer to God and one to another.