Can there be a birthday without a cake or Valentine’s Day without a rose? Can there be Christmas without a tree or Easter without eggs? Sometimes these realities are hard to imagine especially if these have been the practise for many years and one year without them could cause some form of irritation or even disappointment. This year we are going to have Ash Wednesday without ashes and for some it is acceptable while there are others who may sarcastically say that this should be called “Ash-less Wednesday”.

With or without ash, today marks the beginning of an important season in the Church’s calendar – the first day of the season of Lent, the forty days set aside to prepare to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus. The imposition of the ashes in itself with no correlation to the Gospel today bears no meaning. Whether done at Church or at home as in the case for many people doing the Ash Wednesday Family Prayer Service at home this year, it is only an external sign reminding us of a deeper reality that we are called to reflect as we begin the season of Lent.

In the Gospel today, Jesus reaffirms the three traditional works of mercy honoured by Jews (cf. Tobit 12:8-10) and these works of mercy have characterised what Lent calls us to do – almsgiving, prayer and fasting, the three pillars of Lenten observances that we have become accustomed to hearing over the years in this season. The very purpose of taking on these “practises” is to help accentuate the inner reality of Lent, i.e., the call to penitence, an essential part of our Christian life.

The call to penitence in this season is often associated with giving up. It is not uncommon to hear people ask, “what are you sacrificing for Lent?” Our catechism teaches us that giving up “something” is really all about entering into God’s abundant mercy on a deeper level through acts of self-denial.  However, Lent can also be not just giving up something but taking on something so that from the next 40 days, it then becomes a daily part of our lives.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “a virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do the good.” (CCC 1803). Lent can be a time to grow in virtue. In fact, growing in virtue helps us grow out of sin. The more we practice habitually doing good, the less we habitually do bad, or sin. St. Gregory of Nyssa said, “The goal of a virtuous life is to become like God.” If we want to grow in holiness and turn away from sin in our lives, we have to grow in virtue.

In promoting the virtues, St Thomas Aquinas saw the life of virtue as a way of mastering our selfish human desires and deeds by cultivating good habits that order our lives in the image of Jesus. Perhaps this Lent we could change the question from ‘what am I giving up’ to ‘what am I putting on’? Among the many virtues that life calls us to, the virtue of humility is considered by many saints as the “mother of all virtues” for the season of Lent . Though we will be reminded of Christ’s self-giving love in very concrete and tangible ways, but how do we take on humility during Lent? The great author C.S. Lewis says “humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.”

I came across this simple three-fold step to fight the prime enemy of humility, which is pride. It is simply learning to say three important words more frequently and being aware of why we say these words: Firstly, ‘please’ – expressing the need for God and others; I am not self-sufficient; secondly, ‘thank you’ – acknowledging something not owed to me; no sense of entitlement; and finally, ‘how may I help you?’ – as we receive, so we give to others; sharing our blessings forward. These are three things that we can take on this Lent and hopefully they become part of our daily lives.

The importance of humility is clear in the gospel today where Jesus warns against practising religion to be noticed and bloat our sense of pride – that I am better than the other. In order to remedy the sin of pride, which is considered ‘the mother of all sins’, we need to take on the ‘mother of all virtues’ – that is, humility. To do this, no ash may be required but simply a contrite heart that is willing to walk in the footsteps of our Master, Jesus Christ.

Ash Wednesday (17 Feb 2021)