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Monday, March 30, 2009

The Lenten journey in the company of Jesus

As Easter draws nearer, staunch Catholics and Anglicans are meekly observing the Lent season, writes Dennis D. Muhumuza

F asting began on Ash Wednesday (February 25) – the day a mysterious fire destroyed St. Balikudembe market.

Ash Wednesday is the day the priest draws a sign of the cross on the foreheads of the congregation using sacred ashes to mark the start of the forty days of Lent.

The ashes are attained from burned palm branches of the previous Palm Sunday. During the Ash Wednesday mass, as the priest smudges the foreheads of worshippers, he mumbles, “… you are dust, and unto dust you shall return”.

It’s a ritual that continues to confuse many Christians. But Fr. Joseph Ddungu, the Assistant Chaplain of St. Augustine Chapel Makerere, explains: “When we are receiving ashes, we are reminded that we are dust, which means that we are mortal; we shall die, and as our bodies decompose, our souls will go to meet the Creator. So, we have to think about our behaviour now, turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.”

Fr. Ddungu traces the use of ashes from an Old Testament practice whereby people would smear themselves with ashes and wear sackcloth to show how repentant they were.

“But for us in the Christian tradition, we don’t wear sackcloth but we just use ash as a mark to begin the forty-day period of fasting, intensive prayer, giving alms to help the needy and self-denial to show our repentance and to ask for forgiveness from the Lord.”

Genesis 7 tells the story of Noah’s ark and how the flood poured for forty days and nights, whereas in Mark 4: 1-13, Jesus was led by the spirit into the wilderness, where for 40 days he was tempted by the devil; and all this time, it is written, he ate nothing.

Exodus 24: 18 is about Moses spending f40 days and nights on the mountain before receiving the Ten Commandments, while Elijah in 1 Kings 19: 8 spends 40 days and nights preparing to encounter God.

Fr. Ddungu makes these biblical allusions and challenges believers to deny themselves, take the Lenten journey in the company of Jesus Christ, “…and when we come out of Lent, hopefully we will be renewed and transformed, and carry on with this transformation.”

In the old days, people were expected to fast all the 40 days, starting with Ash Wednesday, but today, says Fr. Ddungu, “The practice is you are expected to fast on Ash Wednesday if you are not a minor or old.

That means skipping at least one full meal, but the rest of the days are up to the individual; you find people who fast every Friday, or every day of the Lent season.”

He however adds, “Apart from fasting on Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday, you are also expected not to eat meat every Friday of Lent because meat is one of the things we like most, so we give up something that we like most as a sacrifice. But some people carry it on by not eating meat every Friday.”

He’s not sure why the ash is applied onto the forehead but relates it to Catholics beginning their prayers by making the sign of the cross from on foreheads – the most visible part.

For those who think it’s a great sin to wash away the ash as soon as you are out of church, and for those who avoid the ash on Ash Wednesday, Fr. Ddungu allays your fears thus: “It’s an outward sign that helps us but you commit no sin if you don’t receive ashes or if you wash it away after the service.”

As it is, people have mixed reactions about Ash Wednesday. While Stella Nakalanzi, a Makerere University student, celebrates it every year and repents and turns to God completely throughout the Lent season, for born-again Christian Richard Tumukunde, Ash Wednesday and Lent mean nothing.

“Everyday is supposed to be lived in obedience to God, so I don’t have to wait for Ash Wednesday or the Lent season to repent,” he says. “What matters to me is having an every-day personal relationship with God and running to Him for forgiveness anytime I stray.”

“I’ve observed Lent for almost 10 years without going to church to get the ash onto my forehead,” says David Gumisiriza. “This season I’m trying to discover my innermost self – what is it that makes me live life meaningfully? I’ve discovered it’s not the pursuit of money or fame, but working to make things better and contribute to society.”

Just so you know, the Church of Uganda celebrates Ash Wednesday to usher in Lent with equal fervour like the Roman Catholics, because, as Rev. Hillary Jaffu, the Assistant Missionary Chaplain St. Francis Chapel Makerere says, “There is a very theological significance in putting the blessed ash on the forehead – it shows remorse for our past sins and is a symbol of our repentance.”

Besides observing Lent traditionally, St. Francis Chapel has also asked its members to read at least one chapter of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life – a move aimed at making Lent meaningful to the congregation as they seek to understand their purpose on earth.

So, the Lent period will lead to Palm Sunday – the commemoration of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, up to Easter on Sunday, April 12. The question is are you using this period to have a special time with God?

--Sunday Monitor, March 29, 2009.