Welcome to Ash Wednesday, the John the Baptist of Easter. Today, we Catholics take out our dirty linens and hand them over for dry cleaning. In this way, through our penance and supplication, the Lord in His mercy, will clothe us and make us worthy of being at the table of the Lamb. It is a time for us to prepare ourselves so that at the appropriate time, we shall be counted among those who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb (Rev 7:14).
On this day, Catholics will come forward with joy to receive the ashes, the reminder of the passing nature of this temporal life. Then, there will be those Catholics who have one foot in the Catholic Church and one foot elsewhere, hunting for healing, prosperity and magic. They are seeking for spiritual daggers and knives, invoking fire and brimstone to eliminate their enemies. They have drenched the white garments of their baptism into all forms of demonic and fake oils, they will all step forward to claim a relic of a past that is still buried in their bones. They see the ashes of one of those spiritual amulets they want to add to their altars.
Today, we shall have many Christians and others who are actually not even Christians step forward to have the ashes on their foreheads, believing that somehow, this ritual will be added to the paraphernalia of their spiritual ornaments. These people are the ones who flock to Church in the wake of a serious disaster or crisis, they are the ones who sneak into a Church to seek an emergency cure or to arm twist God to resolve a lingering problem, even though their membership of the Church is in suspended animation. They flock to the Church at Christmas or at funerals or weddings believing that somehow, they can snatch some wonder or assurance. Their motto is, God understands!
Today, we remind ourselves of what the Holy Father Pope Francis had in mind when he stated that, It is absurd to say that you believe in Jesus Christ but reject the Church.
We Catholics have to take full responsibility for retreating from the core areas of our faith expressed in the kind of devotions that the Holy Father refers to as popular piety. We need to return seriously to such devotions as Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, the Rosary, Sacred/Immaculate Hearts of Jesus and Mary, Divine Mercy, Blue Army, Infant Jesus of Prague, Angelus to name a few. Today, our people seem to only remember the miracles and demons that can be commanded in the might name of Jesus! James reminded us of what he called, pure un-spoilt religion (James 1:27)
Ash Wednesday does not stand alone. It is meant to prepare us to work out our salvation in fear and trembling (Phil 2:12). This is why I want to call on you, my fellow Priests and Religious to develop and nurture in our people, a love for devotion and personal prayer so that we can pray as individuals, families and communities. It is prayer that nurtured the early Church, not miracles or wonders (Acts 1:14, 4: 30ff).
Our people have suffered and are still suffering for sins they have not committed. The mindless slaughter of innocent people in the name of a false god still persists. Although we have been relatively shielded from the excesses of the evil called, Boko Haram, there have been other criminal elimination of human lives and suffering inflicted on innocent citizens around us. Let us fervently pray for those of our members who have suffered losses and been compelled to return home. You are in our prayers and we look forward to receiving you back to where you have chosen to make your homes.
Fear is not the story of the Cross of Jesus. This is not the message of Lent. The story of the Cross is a story of hope, faith and joy. Pope Francis has warned us in the new Apostolic Exaltation not to allow anyone to rob us of this Joy which comes from the Lord.
Finally, next week, March 13th, the Holy Father will mark the first anniversary of his Papacy. I ask each of you to please, pray the Rosary for the success of his Papacy and the return of joy and laughter to our dear country. May our sacrifices during this Lenten season be acceptable in the sight of our Lord. We once again commit our Diocese, the Catholic Church in Nigeria and our dear nation into the protective hands of our blessed Mother especially as we joyfully mark our 100 anniversary! To God be glory forever and ever. Amen.