“Repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15)
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of our journey of Lent, the liturgical season that prepares us for Easter. It is a time when we, together with other Christians, Protestants and evangelicals, unite ourselves with the passion, death and resurrection of Christ. It is a season of prayer and fasting.
Ash Wednesday comes 40 days before Easter Sunday (we do not count the Sundays). It comes from the ancient Jewish tradition of penance and fasting. In the Book of Job (42:6), Job repented in dust and ashes, the same way, Mordecai in the Book of Esther, put in ashes and sackcloth when King Xerxes of Persia (485-464 BC), decreed to kill all Jews in his empire. Daniel, in prophesying about the Babylonian Captivity (550 BC) wrote, “I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes” (Daniel 9:3). Jesus also mentions ashes when he remarked referring to towns that refused repentance, “If the miracles worked in you had taken place in Tyre and Sidon, they would have reformed in sackcloth and ashes long ago” (Matthew 11:21). The Church had picked up the imposition of ashes since then.
And therefore, we wear ashes in the form of the cross on our foreheads to publicly symbolize our penance and repentance. The ashes symbolize the dust from which God made us. As the priest applies the ashes to a person’s forehead, he speaks the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). Alternatively, the priest may speak the words, “Repent and believe in the Gospel,” following Jesus exhortation in Mark 1:15.
Today, we shall use the words, “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” What do these words mean?
The first reading from the prophet Joel speaks about God’s call to repentance and conversion. There was a plague of locusts that destroyed Judea, and only God can save them from the calamity. So, there was a need for fasting and repentance.
But the prophet Joel insisted on inner conversion, “Return to me with all your heart” (2:2). Our heart is the deepest depths of our person, and therefore, it is not a conversion that is superficial and transient, but that which transforms all of our lives and the lives around us. In fact, God will ask that this repentance be done “in tears” – that is in genuine, honest and authentic mourning. That is why, every break up that affects the whole of ourselves is called, “heartbreak.”
This “return with all our hearts” extends to our community. God summons the prophet Joel, “Gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber” (2:16). This is the reason why we are all doing this together, as one community. In Australia, they have a “National Day of Mourning” to repent for the atrocities they have done towards the aborigines, their indigenous people. The ashes makes a statement: we are confessing our sins to one another, as we say in the Confiteor, “I confess to Almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have gravely sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do.”
What then should we do? How do we show our genuine and heartfelt repentance and belief in the Gospel, who is the person of Jesus? Jesus suggests these in the Gospel today.
And just as we confessed that we have sinned in what we have done and what we have failed to do, then our form of repentance also takes on action. Thus, Jesus suggests to us three works of mercy: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. But, we are not to publicize our good works.
Pope Francis said in his homily:
“When you do something good, almost instinctively born in us is the desire to be respected and admired for this good deed, to obtain a satisfaction. Jesus invites us to do these works without any ostentation, and to trust only in the reward of the Father “who sees in secret” (Mt 6,4.6.18).
I remember one of the booths made by the campus ministers to the past high school fair. You had to buy a pot of clay. Then you throw the pot with all your might at the wall where several sins are written. During the EDSA revolution in 1986, we protested, “Tama Na, palitan na!” (Enough! Let’s change her!).
Let’s use, “Tama Na, Palitan Na!” for the following:
When we neglect our studies with our sheer laziness: Response
When we bully, hurt and betray our friends and those who are weaker than ourselves: Response
When we have not respected our planet, by not throwing our garbage to the proper bins: Response
When we have been ungrateful to the people who love us, such as our parents and our teachers: Response
When we have been free loaders in many of our school projects: Response
When we have not loved enough because we have been more concerned about ourselves: Response
Let me end with the words of Pope Benedict XVI said in his homily, dated 18 February 2010.
“’Repent and believe in the Gospel’ is not only at the beginning of the Christian life, but accompanies all its steps, [this call] remains, renewing itself, and spreads, branching out in all its expressions.
Every day is a favorable moment of grace, because each day invites us to give ourselves to Jesus, to have confidence in him, to remain in him, to share his style of life, to learn from him true love, to follow him in daily fulfilling of the will of the Father, the only great law of life — every day, even when difficulties and toil, exhaustion and falls are not lacking, even when we are tempted to abandon the following of Christ and to shut ourselves in ourselves, in our egoism, without realizing the need we have to open to the love of God in Christ, to live the same logic of justice and love.”