READINGS: Joel 2:12-18/ 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2 / Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
Ash Wednesday

The season of Lent is a period of forty (40) days during which God calls us, through His Church, to sincerely repent of our sins. That is, we are called to renew our faith in God and to turn away from our sins.

Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, and fasting is one of the acts of penance which is encouraged during this season. A Bible passage which mentions 40 days, repentance, fasting and ashes is Jonah 3:1-10.  In this biblical story, the people of Nineveh sincerely repented when they heard the prophet Jonah preached that their city would be destroyed in 40 days’ time if they remained in their sins. Their repentance was sincere because their external acts of penance like fasting, wearing sackcloth and sitting in ashes corresponded with their internal conversion, which entailed turning from unbelief to faith in God and turning away from their sins.

Similarly, in today’s first reading (Joel 2:12-18), God’s people of old were called to sincerely repent of their sins.  In other words, mere external acts of penance would not be sufficient.  Thus, the prophet Joel delivered God’s word to them, saying: “rend your heart not your garments” (Joel 2:13). So, their fasting, weeping and mourning of sins should be true expressions of their wholehearted return to God (Joel 2:12).

Likewise, in today’s gospel reading (Matt. 6:1-6, 16-18), our Lord Jesus Christ warns us against mere external religious practices aimed at pleasing people.  Our fasting, prayers and almsgiving should be aimed at pleasing God and not human beings. In other words, in practicing these religious acts, our focus should be on God; we should see our fasting, prayers and almsgiving as offerings to God who alone gives true and everlasting rewards.

Furthermore, we could learn from the story of the Ninevites and Jews that calamities are sometimes triggers for sincere repentance.  In the first case, for fear of the imminent destruction of their city, the Ninevites promptly and sincerely turned away from their sins, and the Lord God forgave them. Similarly, the fear of an imminent calamity upon the Jews (cf. Joel 2:1-11) moved their hearts to true repentance and God delivered them.

Beloved, in our case, the CoViD-19 pandemic is not a mere imminent calamity, but an actual global catastrophe: over two hundred million people have been infected by the virus, tens of millions are sick, over two million have died, and there are countless losses of jobs and businesses, etc. Now, if what was merely pending trembled the people of Nineveh to fall into ashes, fast and cry for God’s mercy, and if it triggered fasting, weeping, mourning and cry for God’s mercy in Israel, then this pandemic, though not God’s creation, should be more than a wake-up call for us to sincerely repent.

Therefore, in these 40 days of Lent, our ashes, fasting, prayers, almsgiving and confession of sins must not be mere routines. Firstly, may the ashes we receive truly express our deep conviction that we are nothing without God. Secondly, may our fasting truly express our need for God’s mercy. Thirdly, may prayers truly express our total dependence on God. Fourthly, may our almsgiving truly express our faith in the loving God of Providence. Fifthly, may our confession be sincere and truly express the enduring mercy of God. Finally, then, may God who delivered the people of old, look upon our sincere repentance, forgive our sins and deliver us from the CoViD-19 pandemic.  Amen!

By Very Rev. Fr. John Louis

Bishop John Kobina Louis

Most Rev. John Kobina Louis is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Accra, Ghana. More about him here.

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Catholic Homilies and Sermons for the Liturgical Year by Most Rev. John Kobina Louis, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Accra, Ghana.

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