The return of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) is one of the narratives in the Gospel that speaks of repentance after an episode of wandering in the region of sin and disobedience. In the parable we learn that the father was hopefully looking out and waiting for the son to return from the distant country and seeing him from a distance, he runs towards him to welcome him and he goes further to restore his position in the household.
The word return has two basic meanings, to bring something or someone back to the right place, and to get a profit, yield, income or gain. These two meanings aptly resonate with the message of this Ash Wednesday which discloses God’s call for our return to Him.
Where did we Go and What have we Lost?
The First Reading today (Joel 2:12-18) begins with an invitation from God which says:
Return to me with your whole heart with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God.
One typically returns from somewhere to another place. From the passage, we understand that those who are receiving the message took a leave from God’s presence and wandered away. Their destination was the region sin and consequent disconnection from God. When we commit sin and stay in it, we take leave from God and stay far away from Him.
There are consequences that trail one’s departure from God; in fact, leaving God is the same as losing Him. In the event of our estrangement from God, we lost His protective love and mercy. To be without God is not helpful to our existence as our Lord Jesus Christ would say, “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
God knows the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10). He knows that our estrangement would lead us to total annihilation beyond the present life and for this reason, God calls for a total return of all the people both young and old, priests, ministers, and indeed everyone.
The Ash and our Return to God
The ash is the result of committing anything to fire. From this description, we understand that ash indicates the vanity of human life and all the activities within it (Ecclesiastes 1:2ff). In the most passage in the Bible, people sat on ash or sprinkled it on their heads to indicate penitence and sorrow for sin (Jonah 3:5-9; Job 42:6; Daniel 9:3: Matthew 11:21; Luke 10:13).
During the ceremony of receiving the ash, the priests or the ministers would say one of the following: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust, you shall return” or “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” Three important verbs in the two statements are, “Remember, Repent, and Believe.” We often forget the necessary things and remember the unnecessary ones. The ceremony challenges us to remember that no matter how long we live on earth our life is still short and we shall end up as dust.
The next instructional prayer tells us to repent and to believe in the Gospel. As we march into the Lenten Season, the message of repentance would be repeated especially from the oracle of John the Baptist (Matt. 3:2; Mark 1:4) and the instructions of our Lord Jesus Christ (Luke 13:3). Repentance challenges us to repose our faith in God which entails belief in God and confession. St. Paul says in his letter to the Romans (10:9) that if you confess that Jesus is the Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
Moving Forward: Living the Lenten Life
After receiving the ash, the Gospel Reading today (Matt. 6: 1-6, 16-18), challenges us to live the Lenten life through the introduction of the three pillars of Lent, almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. The elucidation of these pillars of the Lenten Season helps us to understand that the season makes an expedient demand from us. We are invited to excel in charity (Luke 6:38). When we give, especially to those who are in need we become extensions of the hands of God who is always giving to us. Our charity, however, should not be materials for the public announcement; otherwise, we lose our heavenly reward.
Prayer is a very key and recommended activity for us this season. We cannot have a relationship with God without prayers. Our prayer should not be occasional, St. Paul says “pray without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17). Furthermore, our prayer should not just be for some petitions, that is for needs but for everything including thanksgiving to God (Phil. 4:6-7).
Finally, the Season invites us to practice fasting and abstinence. The need to fast is basically to mortify the body and elevate the spirit. In his letter to the Galatians (5:16-17), St. Paul tells us that the flesh is at war with the spirit and there is a need for us to live in the spirit and not to gratify the desires of the flesh. Fasting and abstinence help us at this moment to pay attention to the soul by denying our flesh those pleasures that are unhelpful to our spiritual growth.
As we answer the call to RETURN may we continuously keep our eyes on the need to Remember, Repent and Believe and may the three pillars of the Lenten Season, Almsgiving, Prayer, and Fasting help us to have a rewarding journey through the season.
God bless you and have a beautiful Lenten Season.