Memorial of Saint Scholastica (480 AD – 547ca), sister of Saint Benedict. With her we remember all women hermits and nuns together with all the women who follow the Lord.
Joel 2:12-18; Ps 51:3-6, 12-14, 17; 2 Cor 5:20-6:2; Mt 6:1-6, 16-18
Lent, a season laden with history, unfortunately is becoming increasingly empty of significance in a distracted world, where even carnival is more present and has more of an impact. We could say that Lent plays a diminished role in our own lives as compared with the forceful role of our own personal interests, or of those pursued by groups and nations. Therefore, it is no longer relevant or visible. And yet, humankind and the world have an enormous need for the “non-sense” of the Lenten period. The Christian Churches are called to ward off the risk of debasing the “strength” of these forty days of penance, fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. The Jubilee Year makes of Lent a special time to understand and welcome God’s mercy. The prophet Joel conveys God’s passionate and strong summons, “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” (2:12). The prophet, worried about the people of Israel’s lack of sensitivity, comments on God’s invitation, “Rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (2:13). Lent is the opportune time to return to God and to understand anew both oneself and the meaning of life in the world, even because the Lord is waiting for us. Great is his mercy and he is ready even to change his decision and relent from punishment and do good.
The liturgy comes to us with the ancient sign of ashes, which, though remote from our rationalism and sense of modernism, is still so authentic and returns with great reality. Those ashes, accompanied with the biblical expression “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return,” certainly signify penance and petition for pardon, but above all, a simple reality: we are all dust; we are all weak and fragile. The men and women who, today, elevate themselves and feel powerful (and each one of us has his or her own ways of elevating ourselves and feeling powerful), will, tomorrow, no longer be anything. That person (or even that nation) who elevates himself or herself, feeling powerful and exhibiting weapons and money, risks discovering in the future that he or she is tragically weak. We are all dust! And the ashes upon our head remind us of this. This sentence is not meant to increase our fear much less push us towards mutual elimination. In Christian life, weakness and fragility are decisive aspects of life, even if we continuously try to escape them. These aspects, and not strength, push us to seek what unites, and to try in all ways to find the paths of coming together and collaborating. There is a liberating sense in not always having to pretend to be strong or blameless or without contradictions. True strength lies in taking account of one’s own weakness and keeping alive the sense of humility and meekness, “Blessed are the meek,” says Jesus, “for they will inherit the earth” (Mt 5:5).
The symbol of ashes is therefore more real than ever. It is an austere sign and so is the Lenten season. It has been given to us to help us live better and make us understand how great God’s love is; He has chosen to bind himself with weak and fragile people like us. And to us, the weak and fragile, he has entrusted the great gift of peace so that we may live it, guard it, defend it, and build it. In too many parts of the world, peace is squandered on a daily basis. It is squandered in the suffering of so many people crushed by violence. The words of the prophet Joel resound strongly even today: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even the infants at the breast. … Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep. …Then the Lord became jealous for his land, and had pity on his people” (Joel 2:15-18). The Lord is jealous for his land and compassionate toward his people! It is precisely his jealousy and his compassion that make us, as Paul writes to the Corinthians, “ambassadors for Christ.” Our strength is hidden here: the Lord has taken the dust, which is what we are, to make us “ambassadors” of peace and reconciliation.
We Christians are called to be sentinels of peace in the places where we live and work. We are asked to be watchful, so that our consciences do not yield to the temptation of selfishness, deceit, and violence. Fasting and prayer make us sentinels, alert and watchful, so that the sleep of resignation, which considers war inevitable, does not overtake us; so that the sleep of acquiescence to evil, which continues to oppress the world, is warded off; so that we cut off at the root the sleep of that lazy realism which makes us turn inward into ourselves and to our own interests. In today’s Gospel, Jesus himself exhorts the disciples to fast and pray in order to divest themselves of all pride and arrogance and to dispose themselves towards prayer in order to receive God’s gifts. Our strengths alone are not enough to ward off evil; we need to call upon the Lord’s help; He is the only one who is able to give humankind that peace which we do not know how to give ourselves.
Liturgy of Ashes