What should the Lenten period be for us? Should it be a religious observance or a spiritual activity? The following story will help us immensely in understanding the two phenomena; religion and spirituality in the context of the Lenten Season:
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’… (Luke 18:10-13).
There is a fundamental difference between a religious observance and a spiritual activity; this also means that one can be religious without being spiritual. Being religious has to do with strict observance of the stated norms and creed that govern one’s object of worship. Being spiritual on the other hand has do to with a deep personal commitment within one’s religious creed. Religious observance is generic while spiritual activity is specific or more personal and deeper.
From the biblical story above we can identity who was merely religious and who was deeply spiritual. Of course the Pharisee presented himself as a religious juggernaut who is at home with all the religious requirements which includes but not restricted to the routine prayers, fasting and paying of tithes. The tax collector was more recollected and deep in his interaction with God. He saw his needfulness and emptiness in spite of the religious observances which he may have been doing more than the Pharisee. It is good to be religious but better and more gainful to be spiritual.
The Lenten season starts with the ceremony of ash which we receive on our foreheads. Often I ask if we actually understand what it means to receive ash on our foreheads or if we are merely going through one of those annual religious observances. Put in another way, how does the ceremony of ash affect or assist our spiritual lives. It may be fitting for us to look into the significance of ash as part of our premise.
Ash as a tangible material is the end product we get after subjecting any material to intense burning by fire (except water which does not allow fire to burn). This immediately suggests to us that however great a material is, no matter how beautiful and precious it may be, under intense burning by fire everything is reduced to ash, even human beings.
We have apt biblical instances. In the Old Testament, ash was used to demonstrate penitence, self-abasement, self-abnegation and remorse for sins:
- In the prophecy of Jeremiah we read: “O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in ashes.” (Jer.6:26).
- In the book of Daniel (9:3) we read: “I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer with fasting sackcloth and ashes”.
- When the King of Nineveh heard the oracle of Jonah he covered himself with sackcloth and sat on ashes. (Jonah 3:6).
- During the time of Judith the people showed their repentance from sin by sprinkling ash on their heads (Judith 4:11).
- Job decried: “Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes”. (Job 42:6).
- Mordecai reacted against the decree against the people of Israel by king Ahasuerus by tearing his clothes, putting on sackcloth and sitting on ashes. (Esther 4:1).
In the New Testament our Lord Jesus Christ confirmed the utility of sackcloth and ash as paraphernalia for repentance (Matt. 11:21 & Luke 10:13):“Woe to you Chorazin! Woe to you Bethsaida! For if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”
Ash is thus a reminder to us of our sinfulness and nothingness and the need for us to return to God! Some people who would come to receive the ash on Ash Wednesday would do so because others are going, some even believe that the ash is some magical detergent that is automated to brush away sins and impart miracles.
There is need for us to have a more spiritual understanding and appreciation of the ash and the Lenten period as a whole During the imposition of ash on our foreheads one of the forms used is: “Remember dust thou art and to dust thou shall return” (Gen.3:19). This realization of our nothingness is expected to prod us to attend to the second form used which says: “Repent and believe the Gospel”.
Drawing from the above, our Lenten observance will not give us any positive effect if we do not have a spirituality towards it. Before receiving the ash we should, like the king of Nineveh and his people, accept that we are worthless and sinful. The remorse for sin should come before receiving the ash and not looking forward to the ash as an automatic sin cleanser or sanitizer. It is instead an external religious ritual that should remind us of the need for inner spiritual cleansing which we need at this time in our lives.
The Lenten period generally calls for repentance from sin. During this time we are invited to do a turnaround in our lives. We are invited to make deep and active introspection and come out with renewed lives. The first reading from the prophet Joel (2:12-18) issues a convocation of the people inviting them for a radical change of heart and attitude in order to receive God’s blessings. The responsorial psalm begs God to have mercy on us on account of our sins. In the 2nd reading (1 Cor.5:20-6:2) St. Paul calls for our reconciliation with God as we have been ushered into a favourable time of salvation.
Another important area that needs our attention at this time is what is demanded of us. From the gospel we derive three important practices also known as the three pillars of the Lenten season namely: prayer, fasting/abstinence and almsgiving. From our point of view in this reflection are meant to go through the Lenten season spiritually not just religiously. That means prayer, fasting/abstinence and almsgiving must convincingly come from within us not just as “what we are expected to do”. We shall be looking at them one after the other.
- Prayer: Prayer is our sure link to God. During the Lenten period we are expected to upgrade our prayer life to reflect the forty days our Lord Jesus Christ was in the desert fasting and praying (Matt. 4:1ff and Luke 4:1ff). It is quite regrettable that most of us would have time to do all things apart from praying. Furthermore we need to make our prayer a spiritually committed exercise not just a mere religious observance. For instance, the Stations of the Cross must have personal resonance in our lives as we consider what our Lord Jesus Christ suffered for our sake.
- Fasting and Abstinence: It is almost an annual routine for most people to fast during the Lenten season at designated times in the day. This is good as fasting makes our prayers more effective. However there is need for us to fast not just from food but also from sin and all those things that becloud us and distract us from God. If we are fasting from food and go on committing sin our fasting remains useless. But if we eat and abstain from sin we could have done a more desirable spiritual exercise and it would be more wonderful if we fast from food and abstain from sin at the same time.
We also need to put more emphasis on abstinence. This is a very timely season for us to abstain from those things that are transforming us into slaves. They could be communication gadgets like phones, television, internet, it could be fashion and body make-ups, gossips, lies, drunkenness and indeed all the material things and even human beings that seem to be dictating our lives.
- Almsgiving: Whenever we give, we represent and reflect God. God is a giver and a cheerful one at that and He expects us to be like Him. Giving is one virtue that goes with an immediate reward as our Lord Jesus Christ mentioned in the gospel of Luke (6:38) “Give and there shall be gifts for you…” It is also one of the preconditions for entrance into the kingdom of God (Matt. 25: 35-40). We are expected within this season to set charity afire by our committed attention to others especially those in need. When we help others God will also help us.
As we launch into the season of Lent, let us be more attentive to a more profound spiritual observance so that we can come out with a better relationship with God. May God’s grace continues to support and elevate us throughout the season.