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The words, “return to me with your whole heart,” as spoken by the prophet Joel, shows the depth of God’s love for us. God is constantly searching for his children. God beckons us to return to his love, to the warmth of his relationship. Sin separates us from God’s love which grieves the Father. The prophet echoes, “For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment.” God’s search for his children is relentless.

On Ash Wednesday, we embark on a spiritual journey back to the Father. While receiving the ash on our head, we hear these words, “Repent and believe in the gospel,” or “Dust you are, unto dust you shall return.” Like the people of Israel, the liturgical use of ashes is a symbol of mourning, mortality, and penance. Ashes remind us of our low point and human frailty. We see instances in the Old Testament where ashes and sackcloth served as a sign of repentance for acts committed against God. Mordecai put on sackcloth and ashes when he heard of the decree of King Ahasuerus of Persia to kill the Jewish people (Esther 4:1). Job threw ashes and sackcloth as a sign of his repentance (42:6). The prophet Daniel wrote, “I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes” (9:3). After hearing Jonah’s message, the king of Nineveh declared a fast and put on sackcloth and sat in ashes (Jonah 3:5-6). At the pronouncement of David’s crime by the prophet Nathan, the king “fasted and spent the nights lying in sackcloth” (2 Sam. 12:16).

The prophet Joel speaks to everyone, the people, the congregation, the elders, including children. He speaks to priests, ministers, and invites us to repentance. We must all recognize that we are dust and to dust we shall return. We must be willing to shun greed, wickedness, hatred, selfishness, anger, and injustice. That is the best way to embark on this journey. We must realize the invitation to repent. Conversion is the willingness to give up acts that distance us from God. It is the call to return to the love of the Father.

Ash Wednesday commences the great forty days’ spiritual journey of Lent leading up to Easter. Paul calls it an “acceptable time,” the hour of salvation. God is willing to walk with us. God is ready to accept us back. He is merciful, abounding in love and kindness.

Our forty days of Lent reminds us of the Easter joy, that we are redeemed by the passion, suffering, and death of Christ. Think about Moses’ 40 days and nights on Mount Sinai where he received the ten commandments (Ex. 34). Think about the prophet Elijah’s forty days’ fasting before confronting the prophets of Baal (1 Kgs. 19). Think about Christ’s 40 days and nights in the desert fasting and praying (Matt. 4). God’s victory manifests at the end of every spiritual experience.

Today, we are starting a journey of hope. Characteristically, the Church prescribes a three-legged practice of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Christ says, “When you give, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret.”

Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving serve as great treasures in our liturgical and sacramental actions. This three-legged stool is a special Lenten gift.

Prayer helps us to create a sense of spiritual connectedness with God. Prayer makes our voices heard. Prayer sends our petitions to heaven.

Fasting makes us abstain from the allurements of the flesh. Fasting takes us into the desert, away from our noisy selves. Fasting throws us into the ashes of our uncomfortable spots, detaching from those cravings in order to return to God’s love. It brings us to God’s inner peace.

Almsgiving makes us advocate for the poor, the hungry, the naked, the thirsty, the needy, the abandoned.

Now, we are beginning a pilgrimage of salvation. With the ash on our forehead, we not only remind ourselves of our mortality but look forward to the victory of Christ at Easter. On this day, I could say with confidence, “Have mercy on me, Lord. Save me from all my sins,” because by his death on the Cross, Christ put a price tag on my sins. Truly, God desires our souls, so, let's return to Him. Ash Wednesday begins!

Readings: 1st- Joel 2:12-18; 2nd- 2 Cor. 5:20-6:2; Gospel- Matt. 6:1-6, 16-18

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