Ash Wednesday marks the beginning our 40-day Lenten journey towards Easter. Today, we queue in our churches to let our foreheads be marked with the cross traced in ashes as we are reminded of our own mortality ("From dust you came; to dust you shall return") and the need for conversion and renewal (“Turn away from sin and believe the gospel”). One caveat: Not to allow our participation in the ritual to become a show-off.
Today’s gospel reminds us of such tendency to perform acts of piety for approbation for which Jesus speaks against. Prayer, fasting, almsgiving--- the three hallmarks of Jewish piety (and Christian piety too) are good for they can bring us closer to God and our neighbor if done with the right intention. So we look into the disposition of our hearts whenever we perform these spiritual practices. It is always a great temptation to do these acts (and all acts of piety) for attention, approval and admiration.
May our piety indeed flow from a devotion to God that is expressed by caring for neighbor, praying, and disciplining ourselves with fasting. Moreover, let our spiritual practices be a manifestation of an incarnate spirituality, of a spirituality that happens in our bodies in relation to other bodies, people filled with life and honor given by God. As we pray, fast and give alms, let it be offered to God in solidarity with those living in difficult situations: the poor, the homeless, the refugees and undocumented migrants and all those marginalized by society.
In this extraordinary jubilee year of mercy we are called to encounter the God of mercy and let His mercy flow to others through us. Pope Francis in his message for Lent reminds us that "God's mercy transforms human hearts; it enables us, through the experience of a faithful love, to become merciful in turn." In the same letter, he exhorts us to practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy that "remind us that faith finds expression in concrete everyday actions meant to help our neighbors in body and spirit."
Lent is often a time of self-denial and sacrifice. What then am I giving up this Lent? More importantly, what am I becoming as I give up these things? St. John Eudes reminds us that detachment is not an end in itself but so that it may lead one to greater attachment to God. Lent is also an ideal time to remind ourselves of the generous love of God poured for us on the cross. Fixing our eyes on this image, let us then be reminded of the God who faithfully loves us to the end, who never tires of seeking us, of forgiving us. God will continue to love us no matter what. Such love empowers us to change for the better. Let this time then, be a time of turning away from what hinders us from fully experiencing the grace and mercy of God. Let us rend our hearts and not our garments. Let this be a renewal not simply lasting for forty days but of lasting conversion.
The ashes of Lent remind us of the fragility of life, that our life is not ours, and soon we will have to leave this earth to meet the One who has created us in love. We will pass this world only once, therefore, let us not defer in whatever good and kindness we can do for we will never pass this way again. Let us be bearers of God’s love. Let us be ambassadors of His mercy.