Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is raucous day in many parts of the western society. They call it Mardi Gras … a French phrase which can be easily understood by us Pinoys when we put it in its Spanish translation: Martes de Grazo (Fat Tuesday literally translated in English although, having an British Salesian priest-confrere with us, he says they call it Pancake Tuesday). But it describes the last day when meat is allowed; next day Ash Wednesday marks the forty day Lenten season which in olden times required every good Christian to refrain from meat the whole length of the penitential season.
We’re normally struck by the sacrifice dimension of the Lenten season we fondly call Kuwaresma. It seems that our martyr complex plays a large role for this emphasis. But what seems to be deeper in our cultural psyche is the pakikiramay sa kapwang naghihirap. Here the kapwa is Jesus the Son of God, our Saviour and our Lord. Accepting to suffer like Him (some take it literally by becoming flagellantes) makes us one with Him.
However, the Ash Wednesday Gospel passage speaks not only of fasting, but also prayer and almsgiving. In fact, the three Lenten practices come together. Let me explain a little.
Fasting, if done as it should be done, that is, only one full meal in a day, will bring one to experience weariness and weakness. But the truth is we all are weak, limited, finite, even sinful and wicked! This experiential weakness through fasting will bring us down to our knees and we will re-discover and appreciate the truth of ourselves: mere creatures! Creatureliness hopefully leads us to acknowledge God’s greatness and recognize how benevolent and magnanimous He has been and is with us. Thus, this awareness of His presence in our lives leads to prayer (second lenten practice), a prayerful attitude before our Creator, a pious stance before God Almighty yet so caring and loving of us all. If prayer becomes true prayer, it should lead us to see in Christ our God not only his benevolence to us, but to other weak people as well. This awareness enlarges our worldview and makes us see the plight of the poor, the lonely and downtrodden, the widow and orphan, the helpless and the hopeless. If this happens, it is understandable how one is led to charity (almsgiving is the word the Gospel of Matthew uses).
In the end, the Lenten practices simply signify the path to eternal life which a scribe once asked Jesus with this question: “What must I do to attain eternal life?” Jesus replied: “Love God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your strength (prayer); and love your neighbor (almsgiving) as yourself (fasting).”
Why forty days? It is actually 47 days if you count from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. However, the real count is from Ash Wednesday to Palm Sunday. The next seven days is called Holy Week or better still, the week of the Paschal Triduum: Holy Thursday (Passion), Good Friday (Death) and Saturday Vigil (Resurrection). It is not the same for the Ambrosian Rite used in the Archdiocese of Milan. They do not have an Ash Wednesday commemoration, instead they start Lent on a Sunday. Thus, they count 40 days from the first Sunday of Lent to Holy Wednesday.
The Israelites journeyed in the desert for 40 years; before starting his public ministry Jesus spent for 40 days in the desert. We’re invited to do 40 days because loving God and our neighbor for forty consecutive days might help us acquire the habit of genuine loving.