Death and life
In the Catholic Church, the season of Lent creates an atmosphere of gloom. The penitential season starts on Ash Wednesday, when the Catholics go to church to receive the imposition of ash made in the sign of the cross on their forehead to remind them of their mortality — that death is real.
Before Vatican II, when I was in high school, the words uttered by the priest during the imposition of ash were lifted from the scriptures: “Dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return.”
Then I would feel like Adam who, after rejecting the gift of eternal life of happiness with God in heaven, trembled at the sight of God because he realized that he was doomed to confront the opposite reality his foolish pride brought upon him and his progeny: death. Also, I would feel like Eve, who would suffer to bear her children.
The thought of suffering and death shapes the annual observance of Lent. After Ash Wednesday, every Friday, the Catholics continue to observe their religious practice of self-mortification by fasting and abstinence.
During the Holy Week, they follow the Via Crucis to trace the tortuous route to Calvary. In personal imitation of Christ, some Filipino flagellants flog their bare back until their skin bleeds, or have themselves literally nailed to the cross before curious onlookers.
The season of Lent in the country happens to coincide with summer during its peak, and the rice fields lie dry and barren, scorched by the sun. I scarcely feel the cool, gentle whip of the wind. The trees appear listless, lifeless.
On Holy Thursday, the Catholic faithful go to church to attend the Mass commemorating the last supper of Jesus Christ with his disciples. On this occasion, I remember that Jesus Christ gathered his beloved apostles in a house in Jerusalem purposely to give them his parting words before his death: “The world will know that you are my disciples if you love one another as I have loved you.”
During the Mass, the Catholics partake of the body and blood of Jesus Christ under the appearance of bread and wine, to share their love for one another as Jesus Christ loves them.
On Good Friday, at 3 p.m., the Catholics attend the Solemnity of the Cross in the church. After the rite of crucifixion, they fall in line to take turns kissing the wounded feet of Jesus Christ on the cross. My lips barely touching the wounds of God, I try to hide, as much as I can, the tears in my eyes.
And yet death is not the end of everything. During the Easter Vigil, I join the Catholic faithful in going to the church to experience the most important moment in our lives as Christians. I cower in the darkness at the entrance of the church. Then, suddenly, a burst of light explodes from a pile of burning wood, dispelling the darkness. The congregation intones a hymn less dolorous: “Lumen Christi! Lumen Christi (Light of Christ)!”
During the Mass, when the priest proclaims the Gloria, a loud, jubilant ringing of tiny bells assails my ears as I join everyone in rising to our feet.
Some even jump in triumph, realizing that death, after all, does not mark the end of life, because Jesus Christ has risen from the tomb to prove his claim that he is really the Son of the eternal God and that his promise of eternal life to those who believe in him is not an empty promise. By his glorious resurrection, Jesus Christ conquered death for fallen humanity.
O death, where is thy sting? O death, where is thy victory?
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Mariano F. Carpio, 75, is a retired teacher of the University of Santo Tomas.
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