For Catholics, “40” isn’t the new anything.
The number of days in Lent draws on thousands of years of salvation history recorded in the Bible.
Even so, no two Lents are ever quite alike.
“Our Lent this year will not be the same as our Lent of last year, because we have changed, and so have the people around us,” Father Austin Okoli stated during Mass for Ash Wednesday in the Church of the Resurrection in Wellsville.
“Our lives are a spiritual journey, a process of growth,” he said in his homily. “Each year at this time, we are presented a new opportunity to get closer to God.”
Fr. Okoli — pastor of the Wellsville parish and of St. Joseph parish in Martinsburg, Immaculate Conception parish in Montgomery City and St. Patrick parish in Jonesburg — offers Mass each Wednesday evening in Wellsville.
Ash Wednesday draws a larger congregation than usual.
It marks the beginning of the Church’s 40-day season of repentance leading up to the 50-day celebration of Jesus’s passion, death and Resurrection.
“The Lenten Season is kind of a retreat — a time for looking inward,” said Fr. Okoli. “It’s intended to be 40 days of quiet time for you to reflect and work on your relationship with God.”
He noted that especially in the Old Testament, ashes represent humility and mortality.
“That’s why when I give you the ashes on your forehead, I will say to you, ‘Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return,’” he said.
Namely, life is short.
“Lent gives us this opportunity to stop and reconnect with God,” he stated. “And how do we do that? Through prayer, through fasting and abstinence, and through almsgiving.”
He said those traditional Lenten practices of giving up, giving away, and making time to pray work best when they’re connected.
The priest noted that prayer is an essential part of Christian life.
“Prayer connects us with God,” he said. “A Christian who doesn’t pray is a danger to himself and to others.”
He told a story of man who consistently spent time in prayer.
A friend asked the man what he gets out of all that praying.
The man responded: “I get nothing. But let me tell you what I lose: I lose being angry. I lose being greedy. I lose my ego. I lose my insecurity. And by losing all these things, I gain. That’s why I pray.”
Fr. Okoli recommended the Stations of the Cross as a good prayerful practice for Lent.
“When you meditate on those 14 stations, you are calling to mind all that Jesus went through for the sake of humanity,” said Fr. Okoli. “You are also thinking about the pain the mother of Jesus had while watching her Son suffer for us.”
After the homily, Fr. Okoli and Deacon Ronald Deimeke traced ashes in the shape of a cross on the foreheads of all who came forward.
The ashes are a public acknowledgement of human mortality, the constant need for God’s mercy, and a desire to repent and receive the Good News of salvation.
Calling forth a blessing over the people at the end of Mass, Fr. Okoli prayed: “Pour out a spirit of compunction, O God, on those who bow before Your majesty, and by Your mercy may they merit the rewards You promise to those who do penance.