Ash Wednesday

Click here for today’s Scripture readings.

Joel 2: 12-18
2 Corinthians 5: 20- 6:2
Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-18

The liturgy for this day is one of the oldest in the Roman Catholic calendar.  Throughout the season of Lent the Diocese of Rome has, since the 4th Century, celebrated each daily Mass at a different site within the city.  The season of Lent formally begins with the reception of ashes by the Pope at the Church of Saint Sabina.  Saint Sabina, a noblewoman connected to the Imperial Family, was converted by her lady-in-waiting.  When discovered to be a Christian, she submitted to a martyr’s death.  Like Saint Anastasia, at whose Church the ashes were blessed and distributed before Mass, Saint Sabina represented the Church as Mother who calls her children to receive the grace of God through the forgiveness of sins.  This noble lady represents the Church’s public character.  Like a good mother, she makes two requests:  make a good beginning to the season of Lent and persevere in what you have been taught.  Since 1970, the Church in Rome no longer gathers at the Basilica of Saint Anastasia.  The ceremonies are conducted entirely at Saint Sabina now.

Today’s three readings pivot on the same theme to provide us with different aspects of the concept of repentance.  The prophet Joel is mandated to instruct the people to public acts of penance and forgiveness.  Every social group of his time, from the royal family, the high priestly families and indeed, every family including widows and orphans, is asked to fast, to weep and to mourn for public sins.  The prayer is:  “Spare, O Lord, your people and make not your heritage a reproach with other nations ruling over them.”  We are informed by the prophet that the Lord was moved to compassion by the public cry from the congregation.  In the words of Cardinal Johannes Willebrands:  “If you want something of God, you must ask it.”

The encouragement of Saint Paul in the New Testament reading is the urgency of the issue of repentance.  “Now is the acceptable time…Now is the day of salvation.”  In commenting on the text of today’s celebration, the famous liturgical scholar of the 20th Century, Doctor Pius Parsch claims the reality of that urgency.  Prayer, fasting and generosity – the three themes of Lent – reveal to each individual “the soul’s greatest enemy” is ego-mania.

Today’s Gospel, taken from the Sermon on the Mount, encourages us to withdraw to the room of our inner self and pray these prayers in private.  Jesus addresses God as Father and, even more so, as “your Father” who sees in secret and who knows the difference between the look of your face and the look of your heart.  Transparency is a matter of public behavior, but it is only authentic if it is inspired by private motivation.

- Father Jerome Vereb, C.P.

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  1. Doris Christley says:

    Thank you, Father, for a most informative commentary. I always used to enjoy your sermons so much when you were here at St. Peter’s.

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