The earth as we know it runs on seasons. At this point, some people are experiencing freezing weather in some parts of the earth while others are complaining of excruciating hot weather condition. While some people are covering their bodies to their faces to quell the chilling effects of cold, people in other places are considering the idea of discarding even their inner clothes because of the heat. We are born into seasons, and we live and die in seasons.
The reflection of on the seasons that characterize our material world leads us to consider the liturgical seasons of the Church which also points to some significant spiritual activities. The Ash Wednesday stands as the great door that leads us to the Lenten season. The season of Lent is forty days when we are invited to retreat, reflect, and redirect our lives from our estrangement from God due to sin to a more reconciliatory relationship with Him.
The First Reading (Joel 2:12-18), tells us to return to God with our whole heart, fasting, weeping, and mourning. In the Second Reading (2 Cor. 5:20-6:2), St. Paul invites us to be reconciled to God at this acceptable time. In the Gospel Reading (Matt. 6:1-6, 16-18) our Lord Jesus Christ gives us some practical steps on how we can pull through the Lenten season. He also gives us the best practices with regards to almsgiving, prayers, and fasting (abstinence) which are known as the pillars of the Lenten period.
It is very instructive to notice that in the Gospel, our Lord starts by informing us what we should not do before telling us what to do. We shall examine these in the order they appear in the Gospel narrative.
• When you give alms…
Our Lord begins the instructions with almsgiving, and the reason is understandable. Giving is one the ways we reflect God as God is the eternal giver. The letter of St. James (1:17) tells us that every good and perfect gift comes from God in whom there is no shadow of change. Success in life is not measured by how much we have but how much we give. When we give, especially those who cannot give us (Luke 6:30-35), we reflect and represent God because God gives us more than we can repay.
Coming to the practice of the almsgiving proper, our Lord instructs that when we give alms, we should not sound our trumpets. Why? The reason is that there is the selfish drive in us that looks for appreciation and applause from people. We often wish to be highlighted in the news, we love likes and praise comments. Our Lord is asking us to deny ourselves of that publicity in our almsgiving so that our reward would come from God who repays to every sincere giver (Luke 6:38).
• When you pray…
Our Lord Jesus Christ instructs us not to pray like the hypocrites who love to pray in the synagogues and street corners so that people could see them. Here we understand the desire for public approval coming in with regards to prayer which should be our conversation with God. There is a difference between praying to God and praying to people. It is unfortunate that most people pray to receive attention and endorsement. Praying to people is a waste of time and energy because such prayers do nothing apart from getting their attention. (Praying to people is different from praying for them).
Our Lord invites us to make our private prayers a constant dialogue with God (Luke 18:1). Furthermore, he instructs that using many words and phrases do not determine the efficacy of our prayers. What our Lord Jesus Christ is telling us is that our prayers should be heartfelt not brilliant.
• When you fast…
Fasting is an essential spiritual exercise that we need to understand and appreciate more. To fast means to deny ourselves of not just food but any other bodily or material gratification. Fasting goes with abstinence which means keeping away from something. When we fast, we suppress the body so that the Spirit would rise. St. Paul tells us in the letter to the Galatians (5: 16-17), to live by the Spirit and not gratify the desires of the flesh. He goes further to tell us that the desires of the flesh oppose the desires of the Spirit.
In the narrative, our Lord tells us that we should not make a public show of our fasting by pulling long faces and announcing it to everyone. We could liken our fasting to some of the private and harmless things we do which we do not go about announcing to everyone. Our fasting should be kept between God and us because it is a matter between Him and us.
A more practical approach to the spiritual exercise of fasting is to focus on those unbridled desires we have. Fasting from food is perfect but there are other things you can fast from that could also be helpful. Moreso, there is a difference between spiritual fasting and other forms of fasting like medical fasting or physical fitness fasting. Of what value would it be to fast from food while quarreling and using foul language. We can fast from social media; we can fast from gossips, we can fast from anger and so many things.
As we receive the ash today, we learn that we are nothing before God. The Church tells us that we are dust and to dust, we shall return. The best we can make out of this season is to pay attention to the word of God, repent of our sins and live a more committed spiritual life. We have tried the life of sin enough, now is a new season. Let us also remember that the ash we receive today is not an automatic sin cleanser. It should instead be for us a physical pointer to our inner renewal.
Have a rewarding season of Lent and may the end of the season bring about your renewal and rising to glory with the Lord. Remember the right dispositions when you give alms, when you pray, and when you fast.
May God bless your Lenten journey.