Sometime in July 2014, at the early hours of the morning, my mobile phone rang. I knew it was going to be something unusual when I saw the name of the caller. I answered with so much apprehension. The caller’s voice was highly agitated so I had to ask her to calm down. After an interval, she asked if I heard about the ebola virus that has killed some people. I affirmed that it has been on the news and she said that she just heard that everyone is expected to bathe with salt and also drink some quantity of salt as many people will be killed when the sun rises the next morning.
As the caller was still speaking another call was waiting. By the time she dropped, the second caller came on and repeated the same message of the ebola epidemic and the need for salt. This was followed by series of text messages as well as more calls from people instructing me to apply the salt both as drinking solution and as a body cleanser.
The following morning, salt came up on high demand as many people sought for the product as an antidote to the ebola virus. The “salt illusion” continued even after the Federal Ministry of Health cleared the air saying that salt has no healing effect on ebola while telling people what to do, which included washing of hands and avoiding indiscriminate touching.
One of the outstanding ceremonies that usher in the Lenten Season is the ash we receive on our foreheads. From a very attentive observation over the years, many people rush in to receive the ash with the conviction that it is some kind of automatic cleanser that reduces or clears sins away as soon as it is administered. Just like many took salt as a formidable antidote to ebola. Many would prefer to receive the ash to attending Holy Mass. That is why you will still notice a lot of people coming to request to have the ash hours after the Mass.
It will be proper for us to understand why the ash is administered on our foreheads and the underlying significance. Ash is ordinarily the powdery residue that remains after most materials are subjected to burning. To advance meaning into this, ash could be said to be the end product of everything no matter how big or great that could be. Ash has a lot of relationship and affinity to dust and in most cases, they are used interchangeably. Let us look at what the bible says about ash (dust):
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).
From the examples we have above, ash indicates a state of nothingness and needfulness. To sit on ash or to sprinkle ash on oneself is an indication that one has lost all values and is at the mercy of God who has the power to bring about restoration and regeneration.
The above tells us then that the ash we receive is a great reminder for us that we are sinners, that we have lost our way to God and that we should retrace our steps and come back to Him. The ash is not a soul sanitizer neither is it an antidote to sin. It is more of a sign that should take us beyond the substance itself. In fact, the words used while administering ash says it all: “Remember dust thou art and to dust thou shall return” (Gen.3:19).
Looking at the above, we can see the futility of life as everything ends in dust. However, all is not lost and that is our soul. It thus becomes very important for us to work towards the salvation of our souls when the body returns to dust. This where the second formular used for administering the ash draws strength and it says: “Repent and believe the gospel”.
The message of lent is basically the message of repentance. Repentance itself has to do with turning or returning. There are actions involved here. One is turning away from evil and turning towards good. This is expressed very well in Ezekiel (18:30-32):
Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.
In the First Reading today, 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. St. Paul in the 2nd reading (1 Cor.5:20-6:2) calls for our reconciliation with God at this most acceptable time.
In the Gospel Reading today (Matt. 6:1-6.16-18), we are presented with what could be termed the Lenten attitude or disposition. Traditionally this is seen as the pillars of the Lenten period: prayer, almsgiving and fastening and abstinence. Our reflection today will underscore these in fourfold UPs; Look Up, Give Up, Take Up and Lift UP:
- LOOK UP: Looking up is the right and best disposition when it comes to prayers. This season is most auspicious for us to keep our gaze up not to the skies but to the creator of the skies and all that exist. We are invited this season to pray, to pray and to continue praying. This tallies with what our Lord Jesus Christ said in the Gospel of Luke (18:1) that we should pray always and never to lose heart. The reason why we should continue in prayer is based on the assurance of our Lord Jesus Christ that if we ask (in prayer) we shall receive, if we seek (in prayer) we shall find, if we knock (in prayer) the door will be opened for us (Luke 11:9). Constant and consistent prayers bring us closer to God and make us conversant with Him.
Looking up also helps us to avoid the distractions that come with looking down. Our Lord Jesus Christ was in the habit of looking up by always going up to the mountain to pray. Most of the significant events took place up there: the sermon on the mount, transfiguration, crucifixion and ascension.
- Give Up: To give up is to let go. This season has a lot to do with giving up. There are so many things we need to give up if this season will qualify as a holy season for us. The whole idea of repentance has to do with giving up an old way and adopting a new and helpful one.
It is exactly at this point that we are called upon to undertake the needful piety of fasting and abstinence. We can give up not just food but all those things that we indulge in. Many people make the mistake of thinking that going without food is enough without a prayerful disposition; according to my little friend that is just dieting.
Take some moment and reflect over your life; there must really be certain things we need to give up especially at this time.
Giving up can be seen in another dimension that is from the point of view of charity. There are many things we need to give up for others. There are many things that we have but are not in use by us; these we are called to give up in charity.
- Take Up: This follows closely after giving up. To give up is to let go; to drop and to take up has to do with bringing in something new and better than what we gave up. We need to take up the new ways of relating to others, we have to give up hatred and take up forgiveness and mercy. We need to give up the darkness and take up the light. St. Paul in Romans (13:12) advised thus:
The night is far spent; the day is at hand. Let us, therefore, cast off (give up) the works of darkness, and let us put on (take up) the armor of light.
- Lift Up: To lift up is to move something or someone from a lower region to a higher one. We are called upon lift up our minds and heart from material things to more spiritual realities. We need to lift up ourselves to God; submitting to God. We cannot truly pray except we lift up our minds and hearts to God.
In another dimension, we are called upon to lift up others. There are many people who need to be lifted up from where they have being abandoned by situations and challenges to where they ought to be. We are called to lift up one another to better places not just economically but also spiritually, socially and otherwise.
Before you receive the ash today, make sure you pause and ponder about these fOUR UPS. You need to Look Up to God. You need to Give Up certain things. You need to take up the right things and finally allow the necessary Lifting Up to take place in your life and remember to lift up someone up!
Have a great Lenten Season.