By Rev. Fr. Michael Nsikak Umoh
1. Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of the Lenten Season. Lent is a special season of grace, lasting for 40 days, not counting the Sundays. The number 40 is significant: like the 40 days of Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 24: 18); 40 days of Elijah on Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:8); 40 years of Israel’s journey to the Promised Land; 40 days ultimatum for repentance given to the people of Nineveh by Jonah (Jonah 3:4). The 40 days of Jesus’ fasting is more familiar (Mark 1:12-13, Matthew 4:1-3, Luke 4:1-4).
2. Lent is a season of self-awareness and self-discovery of our true nature and a period for sober reflection on the essence of life. For this reason, we wear ashes today to help mollify our pride and ego and to remind us that no matter how big, important, successful, influential, beautiful we think we are, we are indeed mere dust, but for the grace of God. In 2 Samuel 13: 19, ash is a sign of grief; in Jeremiah 6:26 ash is a sign of mourning; in Job 42:6 it is a sign of repentance. And the book of Daniel says: “turn ‘to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer with fasting, sackcloth and ashes”.
3. When we accept to be marked with ashes, we publicly acknowledge our sinful state and a willingness to make amends. Ashes are therefore for only those who accept that they are sinners and are ready to do penance so that they will receive God’s forgiveness. In this light, the ashes specially remind us of our mortality…the shortness of our lives here on earth. It should invoke in us the desire to mortify our flesh, so that our spirit will grow closer to God, our creator to whom we must return and give an account at the end of our lives.
4. Prophet Joel sets the tone of action for the season: He proclaims: “Thus says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” (2.12). This call to return to God is both to the individual as well as to the entire community: hence the prophet also says: “Blow the horn in Zion! Proclaim a fast, call an assembly! gather the people, sanctify the congregation; assemble the elderly; gather the children, even infants nursing at the breast; let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her bridal tent (vv.15-16).
5. The communal dimension of repentance and returning to God is an essential element in the season of Lent. This year, God emphatically speaks to us as Nigerians within the context of our current political life. As a nation, as families, as a church, we must repent and pray for the forgiveness of our individual and communal sins of commission and omission and do the right thing through these elections. As it is said, heaven can only help those who help themselves.
6. The elections holding within the Lenten season is a sign of God’s willingness to save us as a nation. 2 Chr. 7:14 says: “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
7. We are called to show deep sorrow for our sins through the three pillars of religion: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. But these acts in themselves are not enough, the right attitudes are very important. The implication is that, we may give, pray and fast and still be wrong. In the book of Samuel, Saul thought it was enough to offer a burnt offering to the Lord as a bribe, without doing what he was commanded. But the word of the Lord through prophet Samuel came hard on him that no amount of sacrifice is pleasing to God in disobedience. Nigerians must learn the clear and unambiguous command: “Obedience is better than sacrifice and listening than the fat of bulls” (1 Sam. 5:22). The right attitude and a sincere heart is very important.
8. Isaiah 58:3-7 wonders why God does not pay attention to some fasting. Verse 5 asks: Is this the type of fasting that I desire? Pope St. Leo the great explains a deeper meaning of fasting when he says, “Fasting is not simply a reduction in our food, but the elimination of our evil habits.” In other words, fasting is about detaching ourselves from some worldly pleasures, activities and exercises in order to focus more on our relationship with God and on charitable deeds.
9. The ashes are signs of humility because they are derived from a complete, total burning of an object or a substance. If we all burn our personal desires and enthrone values and the common good instead, there is hope for Nigeria. All acts must come from a sincere humble and contrite heart.
10. Finally, very well indeed, this Lenten season, “Now, now, is the favourable time, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2). The words of the Apostle Paul sound a note of urgency of the Lenten season. It is an urgency for NIGERIANS. It does not permit any kind of delay, neutrality or procrastination. The term “now” is repeated and cannot be missed, it is offered to us as a unique opportunity to save ourselves, save our faith and save Nigeria from evil.
11. With this spirit we begin the “acceptable time” of Lent, as St. Paul reminds us, to allow ourselves to be reconciled with God in Christ Jesus. May the Virgin Mary, the Queen of Nigeria intercede for us in this time. May God grant us a new heart and a new Nigeria. Amen.