A melange of powerful images confronts us as we “begin the discipline of Lent.” The prophet Joel speaks of “blowing the trumpet” and “calling for an assembly” in order to “proclaim a fast.” The rousing call has an air both of certainty and urgency, both springing from a firm conviction … “perhaps He will again relent, and leave behind him a blessing.” Joel’s conclusion is as certain as it is firm: “The Lord was stirred to concern for his land and took pity on his people.”
But the conclusion did not come from thin air. It came from the depths of pleadings and prayers, summed up in our response after the first reading: “Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.”
The same air of plaintive pleadings and fervent prayer is shown in Paul’s reaching out to the Corinthians: “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God … We appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.”
Plaints, pleadings, and prayers … these are what characterize today’s readings. They stand at the core of what today’s liturgy is all about. We started out with a powerful prayer at the beginning of the Mass: “Protect us in our struggle against evil.”
We plead. We beg. We ask God for protection. This is the spirit of Lenten observance … a time for intense prayer … a season for fervent pleadings to a God who has always taken pity on his people. Lent is very simply this … a time to intensify our foundational connection with a God who communicates with us in word and deeds, and, therefore, a time for us all to return the favor in “word and deeds.”
This is what we pray for. We beg God for protection. We ask God for help. This is the “word” from our end. But we also follow God who fulfilled his “word” and followed it up with deeds. We resolve to do something. We promise to make good with our hands what we say with our lips. We pledge to accompany what we pray for with a promise of performance. We commit ourselves to “struggle against evil.”
Ash Wednesday offers a mélange of images, like I said above. Though not conflicting, said images are contrasting. On the one hand, we see ourselves as on the receiving end. We are beggars before a God of magnanimity and generosity, for as Joel puts it, “gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment.”
But on the other hand, we see ourselves, too, as on the giving end, on the doing pole. It takes two to tango, as they say. Lent is not only all about asking. It is all about giving, too. It has to do with doing … with giving God His due. We join God in his struggle against anything and everything that blocks us from becoming what He is. We call it evil, and we strive to struggle against evil … in all its forms, colors, shapes, sizes, and guises.
But what we pray God for is not mere activism, not merely resorting to performances “so that people might see.” We pray for righteousness, not just for the will “to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them.”
Our culture is now deeply immersed in form, not substance. Just about everything we see and do starts out with, and ends up in, superficial form, not the inner, deeper reality that is not just skin deep. Beauty is identified with skin tone and color. In Southeast Asia, particularly the Philippines, one of the most saleable items is skin whitening products of every imaginable form. One of the most popular lunchtime TV shows, capitalizes a whole lot on images, on appearances, and on mere external realities that belie a culture devoid of solid, time-tested values. In their place is seen the overwhelming value of the material, the here and the now, and the quantifiable. Happiness is not emphasized, but appearing happy is. Having fun is not the aim, but putting on a semblance of unalloyed fun seems to be the rule of the game, the standard against which a potential “winner” or “participant” or audience is compared.
The world of mass media, in the Philippines, and elsewhere, does more than report events. They also mostly create events so they have something to report on. And this, they do, while sacrificing good, old, time-tested values on the altar of profit and those much coveted and much ballyhooed ratings! What is evil is reframed to appear good; and doing good is eventually portrayed as a futile activity, if not, as a waste of precious time that could be used to for more productive pursuits.
Today, at Ash Wednesday, the start of our Lenten season, we go beyond appearances. The Lord reminds us not to be satisfied with mere looks and empty symbols. He tells people who fast to wash their faces. He reminds people who give alms, not to blow trumpets that herald the good they do. He reminds those who pray to do so in their secret chambers, and not in public places.
What he really tells us is that prayer and good intentions are never enough. We do need to go beyond. We need to beg God and pray, but as every sailor lost out at sea knows too well, we need to pray, but we also need to row feverishly towards the shore. We need to help God so He could help us, too.
In short, we beg God for protection. But we do need to struggle against evil. God helps those who help themselves.
I am a pilgrim. I am a learner. I journey with others in faith and life. In all I do, in my preaching, teaching, counseling, and writing, "all I want is to know Christ, and to experience the power of his resurrection" (Phil 3:10). By so doing, I humbly hope to make a difference in people's lives.