Rev. Fr. Bonnie Nkem Anusiem Ph.D.
One common mistake some shepherds of souls make is that they start giving directions about the season of Lent when it has already started with Ash Wednesday. The challenge is that most people must be reminded of their expectations and obligations for more committed involvement before the season begins. Notably, Lent is not just a season; it is a mindset that needs to be developed with time and commitment.
Lent is forty days of intense prayers, almsgiving, fasting, and abstinence, reflecting the forty-day wilderness experience of our Lord Jesus Christ after his baptism. The Gospel of Matthew (4:1-3) says: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was famished”.
One important line in the Gospel passage above we should keep in our minds as we enter the Lenten Season is that the Spirit led Jesus up into the wilderness. That means Jesus did not go into the wilderness by his power or might but by the Spirit (Zecharia 4:6). So, if we must journey through the Lenten Season, it must be led by the Spirit.
Ash Wednesday and Why We Receive Ashes
Most people realize that the Lenten Season has started when they see people with ashes on their foreheads patterned like a cross. Every Ash Wednesday which begins Lent, people stream to the Churches, even at odd hours, requesting to be signed with ashes, and sometimes I wonder if they understand the significance of getting the ashes. We shall deal with that in what follows.
We get ashes by committing flammable materials to fire. In short, it is the last thing that remains after burning. Dust or ashes signify the residue of all material things. The Book of Genesis (2:7) tells us that God made man from the dust of the earth, and after the fall, God declared, “dust you are, dust you shall return (Genesis 3:19).
In Biblical times, sitting on ashes or dust or sprinkling oneself with them indicated sorrow, penitence, and repentance. Job sat in dust and ashes in repentance before God restored his fortunes (Job 42:6). The King of Nineveh and all his subjects sat in the dust to show their repentance from sin (Jonah 3:6)
The ashes we receive on Ash Wednesday should be an external indication of the inner transformation of our hearts in penitence for our sins. So, the ashes are useless if there is no significant change in our hearts. This is why the instructions about Ash Wednesday and Lent should come before the season.
The Lenten Obligations
The first Bible passage we read on Ash Wednesday, which also serves as the instructional gateway to the Lenten period, is from the Prophet Joel (2:12-18). It says, among other things: “Even now says the Lord, 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 phenomenon that is consistent in this passage is the heart. So, essentially Lent happens in the heart and not in your face or the Church. Furthermore, it involves a purposeful and intentional return to the Lord. St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians (5:20-6:2) tells us that it is time to be reconciled to God, the acceptable time.
Our Lord Jesus Christ graciously provided us with the areas of spiritual concentration for a fulfilling Lenten observance in the Gospel Matthew (6:1-6, 16-18). Summarily, he gives us the three pillars of Lent: almsgiving, prayers, and fasting /abstinence.
Almsgiving: Giving is one of the two ways we can reproduce God in our lives. The other is forgiving. Almsgiving is not just giving something to others; it starts with a conviction in the giver’s heart that the giving is for God’s sake, not as a tool for public recognition and exaltation. There is a difference between almsgiving and philanthropism.
Lent is the time to give not just what you don’t need but even what is precious to you that could benefit others. We stand to gain more from God when we give selflessly and quietly. The Book of Proverbs (19:17) says that whoever gives to the poor lends to the Lord.
Prayer: Prayer is the central spiritual communication system that links us to God. Prayer is a way of life; that was why our Lord Jesus Christ advised that we pray without ceasing (Luke 18:1).
In the Gospel instruction, Jesus discouraged the hypocritical way of praying, which involves courting people’s attention. Instead, Jesus advised us to exclude ourselves during prayers. What it means is that God should be our audience, not people.
Fasting/ Abstinence: True fasting quickens our spirit and prayers before God. When we fast or abstain, we deny ourselves what our body naturally desires to bolden our spirit. Food is the most valued object of fasting and abstinence but not the only one.
We are expected to scan our lives to identify the things that challenge our cravings most and offer them as the object of fasting and abstinence during Lent. Besides fasting and abstaining from food, some people may have to consider pornography, masturbation, excessive social media consumption, gossip, anger, envy, and other destructive vices.
Moving Forward: What are You Giving Up for Lent?
The whole essence of the coming of our Lord Jesus, which will culminate in the death on the cross, is for the remission of our sins. St. Paul says God made the one who had no sin to become sin so that we can become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21).
Sin is the major thing we need to give up, but we need to identify and eliminate the root causes of the sins we commit. Look into your life; you must surely see something to give up. Self-examination is very critical for us in the season of Lent. It is about answering God as He says, “even now, return to me.”
God bless you.