Side tracking Lent
The fear of the spread of the corona virus, now named COVID-19, is affecting our lives, not only our entertainments and our travels, but also our church activities. The bishops of Singapore and Hong Kong have cancelled masses for the coming month. Here in the Philippines, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) has instructed that receiving communion be done by the hand for the time being. Now even our Ash Wednesday imposition of the ashes may also be affected. There are also many public practices that we do during the Lenten season where crowds gather, like the Way of the Cross processions, the recollections, the kumpisalan ng bayan, and especially the Holy Week celebrations. Would these also be affected?
There may be changes in some of the church practices that we do, but let us not be side-tracked by these discussions from the real meaning of the season of Lent which is a season of grace and conversion. Let us go to the core meaning of our rites rather than be confused by changed external practices.
Right now there are already discussions about the imposition of the ashes on Ash Wednesday. In the Philippines we have been used to put the ashes on the forehead. But this is not the only way to do it, nor is it even the original way. In the Bible and in many churches in the world, the ashes are put on the top of the head, not on the forehead. More than where the ash is imposed and in what manner, the meaning is the same. The ashes imposed on us is a call to humility and repentance. Job repented of his challenges to God when God finally spoke to him, and he meekly said: “Therefore I disown what I have said, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:6) We are reminded by Ben Sirac in the Wisdom literature of the Bible: “God holds accountable the hosts of highest heaven, while all mortals are dust and ashes.” (Sir. 17:32)
Thus while the dust is imposed on us, whether on top of the head or on the forehead, we are reminded of our lowly origin. So the words are said: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We are also called to repentance, so another formula can be said: “Repent and believe in the Good News.” Humility and repentance are the essence, and these should not be lost in whatever form the ash is imposed on us.
Ash Wednesday opens us to the Season of Lent, the 40-day period of penance, prayer and almsgiving that prepares us for the great event of our salvation: the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus (called the Paschal Mystery) which we all participated in during our baptism. This season asks us to take seriously our baptismal commitment to die to sin and to live for God by following Jesus.
Ash Wednesday then is not just a one-time event. It ushers us to a season of renewal. We renew ourselves by self-control (this is the meaning of fasting and abstinence from meat that we do), by generosity (hence we are enjoined to be more generous to the poor by almsgiving), and by prayer. These three are related to each other. By saying no to ourselves (penance), we are able to say yes to others (almsgiving) and to God (prayer). Let us not be side-tracked by the corona virus in living the season of grace this lent.
(Guest editorial by Bishop Broderick Pabillo)