YESTERDAY, Christians had ashes applied to their foreheads to signify epheral nature of life. That they are dust and to dust they will return. For Catholics and non Catholics alike, the celebration of the Ash Wednesday is known to mark the beginning of the Lenten Season in the Church’s liturgical programme.
In Nigeria, the Ash Wednesday event took a different turn for the Catholics. Apart from having ashes sprinkled on their foreheads, they were adorned in black to show solidarity with the victims of kidnaping and other violent crimes in the country.
Lent is the Christian season of spiritual preparation before Easter. During Lent, many Christians observe a period of fasting, repentance, moderation, self-denial and spiritual discipline.
According to experts, the purpose of the season is to set aside time for reflection on Jesus Christ, to consider his suffering, sacrifice, life, death and resurrection.
During the six weeks of self examination and reflection, some Christians make a commitment to fast or to give up a bad habit while some take it as a discipline like reading the Bible and spending more time in prayer to draw nearer to God.
The practice of receiving ashes dates back to the 5th century and became a universal Christian practice by the 11th century.
Before the 4th century , only Catechumens who were in the final stages of their preparation for Baptism on the Easter vigil observed a fast for three weeks before the celebration of the Paschal mystery , the candidates for attending special classes in Christian doctrine.
The first mention of the Lenten fast is in the 5th century of the Council of Nicaea (325 AD) , and from this time, it was frequently referred to as a season of preparation for baptism, absolution of penitents of retreat and recollection.
As an important religious observance in the Christian programme, Lent is a season to observe and commemorate the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the son of God, our Saviour and Redeemer.
The Lenten season is characterised by major features which include self-sacrifice, fasting, abstinence and charity. All of these are intended to mortify the flesh and prepare one’s heart to welcome Christ who is to be reborn from birth during Easter. During the 40 days, Christians are expected to fast regularly and accompany such fasts with prayers. In the spirit of meditation on the passion and death of Christ, they are also expected to genuinely turn away from their sins and embrace holiness and righteousness.
The tenet of charity is also emphasised during the period.
Abstinence as another major feature of the Lent season is also geared towards self-sacrifice and repentance. Christians are expected to give up certain ‘pleasures’ which had been a part of their life, not just as a form of fasting but totally turning away from those ‘wrong but pleasurable’ habits.
According to experts, Lenten season has goals. Lent should be about living the Gospel every day. The Gospels are defined as the life, teachings, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. To get to the heart of its message, we must examine how Jesus lived. Lent should initiate our awareness of those who need the most attention. There are many people who live in our shadow that require our immediate care.
Lent requires a redefinition of the word “sacrifice”. We assume that the word “sacrifice” means giving something away or denying ourselves of something. Lent should raise our awareness of the things we take for granted.
In his Lenten message for year 2020 with the theme “we implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God,” Pope Francis stressed the importance of reconciliation during the season.
Pope Francis said Lent was a time for deeper dialogue with God through prayer, for renewed gratitude for God’s mercy and for increased compassion for people whose lives are under attack.
Also, he noted that people must not only show generosity through charitable giving, but they should also work for a real structural change to today’s economic life.
The Holy Father called for a commitment to building a better world by having feeling of compassion towards the wounds of many innocent victims of wars, in attacks on life, from that of the unborn to that of the elderly, and various forms of violence
Commenting on the purpose of Lent to Christendom, Bro Banas Abana of the Pentecostal faith noted that Lent is a period of sober reflection and a time of remembrance of the redemptive work or the suffering and death of Christ which he did on our behalf.
He said the act was practiced all the time by the church because as Christians, we need to examine ourselves in order not to fall away from the faith.
A media practitioner who pleaded anonymity opined that Lent is a very important period in the Church calendar. He said the 40 days penance time was a time set aside to remind Christians of the sufferings of Jesus Christ.
Answering a question if he observes the Lenten season, he responded in the negative saying he does not observe or make any commitment during the season because he believes that Jesus Christ has done that for him. For him, he is striving very hard to be upright in the face of God.
Speaking on the significance of ashes applied on the forehead, a Catholic priest, Reverend Father Innocent Nwankwo said that ashes symbolises grief; grief that we have sinned and caused division from God.
The Second-century Church referred to the wearing of ashes as a sign of penance. Here, Priests administer ashes during Mass and all are invited to accept the ashes as a visible symbol of penance. Even non-Christians and the excommunicated are welcomed to receive the ashes. The ashes are made from blessed palm branches, taken from the previous year’s Palm Sunday Mass.
Rev. Fr. Anthony Akabogu speaking during his homily in 6am Mass at St. Thomas Aquinas, Awka, firmly explained that Ash Wednesday is a journey of faith and event in the life of church, marked by a period of preparation. Lenten exercises take after the example of our Lord Jesus Christ who fasted 40 days and 40 nights in the desert and emphasised prayer and fasting as a means to master the evil one and grow to perfection. Ash Wednesday is not a new thing and it is a journey that deserves repentance, forgiveness, self mortification, visitations to homes, abstaining from a luxury life until Easter comes.
Reverend Father Solomon Okoli, Vicar 1, St Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church, Awka, in a homily at the Ash Wednesday 12pm Mass, said that Ash Wednesday was a day of sober reflection, repentance and reconciliation with God. It marks the beginning of Lenten period; it’s a period of penitential prayer, almsgiving and fasting.
He said that a season of penance, reflection, and fasting which prepares us for Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday, through which we attain redemption. Following the example of the Ninevites, who did penance in sackcloth and ashes, our foreheads are marked with ashes to humble our hearts and remind us that life passes away on earth. We remember this when we are told to Remember, that Man is dust, and unto dust he shall return.”
Father Okoli called on Christians to join forces in the prayer to liberate Nigeria from crises and various atrocities. He said that prayer was very important especially in Nigeria, adding that the world is faced with lots of challenges, including strange illnesses, like the corona virus which up to this moment, no cure has been found. The priest therefore, urged Christians to seek the face of God and ask for His mercy.
The Vicar 1 advised Christians to live in peace, love one another and avoid using harsh or provocative words on others; to live a Christ-like life.” Thus let the ashes on your foreheads be a proof that they are courageous over all odds”.
On his part, the chaplain of Retreat Centre, Chapel of the Good Shepherd, Okpuno, Rev Father Maximus Muojeke said that the three important preambles of lent were prayer, fasting and arms-giving as the practical way of joining Jesus in fasting and praying for 40 days and 40 night in the desert after his Baptism by the John the Baptist. He urged Christians to pray for their sins as well as ask for divine favour in their social and private lives.
He prayed that God will save the citizens from terrorism and for the souls of all the faithfully departed Christians to rest in peace.
He urged Nigerians to let peace reign in the country, adding that Christians should not reiterate irrespective of the pressure on them but only ask God to defend and protect them.
“Christians are followers of Christ. We are expected to practice our Christian life especially this Lenten period. Jesus Christ is a Prince of Peace and His gospel is a gospel of Peace. Stay away from sin, denounce devil and avoid occasions of temptations because sin actually has its consequences. So if we do not sin, we will be sure that our Divine Majesty will be on our side. He is ever faithful. We should continuously pray for our nation Nigeria.
Speaking to National Light, the Parish Priest St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, UNIZIK Temp Site, Awka, Rev. Fr. Kevin Ezeokeke, said the Catholic Bishops of Nigeria have frowned at the incessant killings and destructive tendency of making human life something worthless.
“Because of this, all Catholics in Nigeria have demonstrated by wearing black clothes. Though we have said nothing but we have made a laudable statement today” he said.
Fr. Ezeokeke who stated that Christians are not happy, urged the government and all those responsible for the security of lives and properties of Nigerians to take their jobs seriously.
“We want peace and progress, but none of them would come by people dying everyday especially Christians. Very often, those here in the east do not know what is happening, but these terrorists have wiped almost all the villages in the far north, in the name of Boko Haram or grazing grounds”, Fr. Ezeokeke said.
The Parish Priest also mentioned that the Catholic Bishops have come together for a purpose to make a statement, saying that enough is enough.
“If they cannot stop it, let us see persecution and trials. The perpetrators of these heinous acts are not ghosts, but human beings and it appears as if they are being protected. This dangerous tendency makes everyone a little bit apprehensive. The earlier they accept their responsibility by persecuting the perpetrators, the better for us.” He said.