Today is the Ash Wednesday. It marks the beginning of the yearly formal Christian Lent season. Symbolically, Christians use the ash to mark their forehead with a cross. We are in a world where signs are meaning dependent. Thus, the ash is a substantive symbol of suffering, poverty and death waiting for resurrection.
This “ash” tradition dates back to the “poor” roots of Christianity as a divine ministry to the poor. Regardless of the directions we humans have taken the practice of Christianity to, Christianity as a divine ministry to the poor defines the core of our faith.
At this time in the country’s history, a core of the Christian Faith such as the Ash Wednesday cannot but resonate both locally in Nigeria and globally beyond the shores of our country.
About a week before the Ash Wednesday, which commenced the 2015 Lent period, Pope Francis welcomed 20 new Cardinals. Though welcomed previously, Nigeria’s Cardinal John Onaiyekan, the Catholic Archbishop of Abuja is one of these closest advisers of the Pope-the Conclave of Cardinals. The Cardinals are crucial for many reasons. They advise the Pope. They elect the new Pope.
What is significant as reported by the popular press is the direction Pope Francis looked in welcoming the 2015 20 new cardinals. Some of the Cardinals come far-flung, from often overlooked dioceses where Catholics are a distinct minority. These include Pastors who focus on the “poor” roots of Christianity like the Pope. They focus on the poor and the disenfranchised.
It is suggested that Pope Francis’ choices of Cardinals show is his vision of what the church should be: i.e. “One that looks out for the poor and most marginalized, guided by shepherds who have … the “smell” of their sheep”.
Hence, in the new conclave of Cardinals you will meet Cardinal Francesco Montenegro of Agrigento, Sicily, whose church — which extends to the island of Lampedusa — has coped with the arrival of tens of thousands of migrants over the years, and the archbishop of David, Panama, Cardinal Jose Luis Lacunza Maestrojuan, who works with indigenous peoples to protect them from mining interests.
Making the choice of the Cardinals-which shows his vision of Christian Faith as ministry to the poor and most vulnerable in our society-public just a few days before the Ash Wednesday, Pope Francis’s ministry adds to the significance of the Ash Wednesday as the beginning of our commitment to the poor through our faith.
This is why locally watching the body language of Nigerian leaders and rulers adds fresh meaning to a global move to make governance serve the interest of the poor, the most vulnerable, the ignored and the economically invisible in our society.
Hence, Mr. Yemi Osinbajo’s focus on the Nigerian poor during his speech marking the 73rd birthday of Pastor Adeboye The General Overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of Nigeria is significant.
In a lecture faithfully titled “Harmonizing Virtues to Gain Heaven and Earthly Prosperity,” Mr. Osinbajo sees he intersection of the heavenly and the earthly as speaking both to the material and spiritual needs of the poor in Nigerian society.
And Mr. Osinbajo argues that Nigerians of the Christian faith have the power to influence government policies to ameliorate the suffering of the Nigerian people. He puts it thus: “We have been placed in positions of greater significance. If we choose to, we have the power to influence government; to say to the government, why do we not have free health care for the poor?…To say to government, why do we not have free education, to say to government why are you not providing for the elderly who are poor and for the disable who are poor?’’
Osinbajo underlies this with a faith service vision that is capable of driving this commitment to the poor as : “Serving others is sacrifice of personal ambitions for the good of others. The sacrifice of personal ambitions is crucial and a way of greatness.’’ A faith vision commitment to the “poor” roots of Christianity cannot miss this message.
The return of the Christian faith to its “poor” roots as enjoined by Pope Francis and other local and global clerics stand as a major revival of the Christian faith and a reflection of the character of the true faith practice. For in the final analysis what is Christianity outside its agape love and solidarity with the vulnerable in our society?
Here, we are not talking of purchasing the poor through corrupting them, and selling them as many Nigerian clerics who have dubiously sold the Christian faith to the corrupt politicians in our society do. Rather, we are taking about agape commitment and love to the poor such that we proclaim the Gospel with joy unconditionally without corrupting it with money; dubious, criminal and questionable material “prosperity”.
Echoing Ash Wednesday, the global voice Pope Francis and a national voice Mr. Yemi Osinbajo, what is Christianity without this joyful proclamation to the poor from Mathew 25: 35-41“ For I was hungry you gave me food, I was thirsty, you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me, … whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me…”
As we begin this holy period in the “poor” roots of Christianity, may the ash on our foreheads on this Ash Wednesday be a heavenly symbol and reminder of our joint religious, divine, and earthly commitment to the poor and most vulnerable in our society among who Jesus Christ is always found.
Adeolu Ademoyo firstname.lastname@example.org is of Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.