AshesBy Juan L. Mercado
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Our hand froze before twisting open the hospital room door knob. “No Visitors Allowed,” the sign read. The wife pushed me gently forward. We tiptoed in.
Hooked to IV tubes, the gaunt man on the bed was a friend for decades. His kindnesses were many. He never wallowed in self-pity. Tears welled as he gripped my hand. “Good of you to come,” he gasped. “I’m fighting.”
A chaplain earlier anointed him, then gave communion as “Viaticum”—Latin for the “way with you.” My friend wouldn’t cross the passageway alone. Hindi siya mag-iisa. At a loss for words, I squeezed his hand. Goodbye is said in many ways.
As we closed the door, Thomas á Kempis’ words resonated. “Man is here today and tomorrow he is gone… You’re a fool if you assume you’ll live long, when you’re not even sure of one day… You will pass the same way.”
Most of us duck the reality of mortality year round. “I know everyone has to die,” 77-year-old artist Woody Allen wrote. “I just never imagined it would happen to me.” Ash Wednesday rites tomorrow nudge us to get real. We all journey to the grave.
On the Dies Cinerum or “Day of Ashes,” cinder is traced on the foreheads of all those who step forward. That includes slum-dwellers, “walang ngipin at salawal,” gated-enclave residents, those “who defy age and time with four-day stem cell treatment in Germany,” even Presidents. Assassin’s bullets cut down Anwar Sadat in a Cairo parade. Ramon Magsaysay’s plane slammed into Mt. Manunggal and exploded in a ball of fire.
Kings are not exempted. Lost for 527 years, Richard III’s moldering bones, still bearing a metal arrow, were excavated by scientists this month from a car park in Leicester in the United Kingdom.
Wednesday’s ashes come from burnt Palm Sunday 2012 fronds. With oil of the catechumens, ashes are stirred into a paste. Then, a priest or lay minister traces the moist dust on foreheads. The rite harks back to the sentence handed down in an Eden marred by disobedience: “By the sweat of your brow you shall get bread to eat, until you return to the dust from where you were taken.”
Death cannot be bribed. Only $658 million was recovered from Ferdinand Marcos’ estimated loot of $5 to $10 billion, the Christian Science Monitor reports in “How Dictators Stash Their Cash.” Marcos’ corpse is mummified. Gone, too, is Haiti’s “Baby Doc” Duvalier ($5.8 million recovered from $600 million stolen).
The eighth-century “Gregorian Sacramentary” details this rite which starts the 40-day Lenten period. But ashes go way back. “The other eye wandereth of its own accord,” Job wrote more than two millennia before Christ. “Wherefore, I repent in dust and ashes.”
“What is the meaning of our strange behavior?” asked the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury in his 2011 book “Writing in the Dust.” “Three things, I believe. With these Lenten ashes, we confess. We promise. We hope—in a journey towards renewal.”
The three ascetical pillars of Lent—prayer, fasting and sharing with the needy—are common to major faiths. Muslims observe Ramadan. Jews fast on Yom Kippur. Hindus and Buddhists set aside days for fasting.
Probably, the shortest way of putting meaning to Lent and its sacrifices is “God teaching us how to take pain like a man,” the late Filipino historian Horacio de la Costa wrote. “Pain is part and parcel of living. This is how God made pain pay. He loved me, and He delivered Himself up for me.”
The real experts on love are those who have suffered much. Ask your own fathers and mothers. And they will tell you love is not nonsense about moonlight and roses. Love is giving, going without, making do—for the one you love. It takes much out of you and pierces like a lance.
Yet they would not exchange it for all the world, parents will add. “One of the soldiers pierced His side with a lance, and immediately there came out blood and water.” The little self-denials we practice during Lent will not seem so hard after all, will they?
In this ancient tradition, there have been “some refreshingly untraditional directions” of late, notes America magazine. In earlier Lents, Catholics were encouraged to “give something up,” e.g., movies, a second helping of dessert, etc. More common today are invitations to “do something positive.”
Vatican II underlined the idea of “social sin.” Where, for example, do you participate in structures that perpetuate sinful practices? Instead of giving up chocolate, could you ensure your company pays a fairer wage?
How about legislators here giving up, for good, their self-exemptions from audit into their spending of tax money? The last Social Weather Stations survey found “an estimated 3.3 million families experiencing involuntary hunger at least once in the past three months.” They make do with altanghap. That’s breakfast (almusal), lunch (tanghalian) and supper (hapunan) stitched into one. Share your food.
“When we hear the words, ‘Remember, you are dust,’ we are also told we are brothers and sisters of the incarnate Lord,” theologian Karl Rahner wrote. “We are nothingness that is filled with eternity; death that teems with life; futility that redeems; dust that is God’s life.”
Lent’s ashes make two choices clear. “This day … I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses,” Moses told his rebellious people. “Choose life, so that you and your children may live.”
Beyond a handful of ashes is an offer of “life to the full.” After Ash Wednesday is Easter Sunday—and an empty tomb.
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