Handful of ashes | Inquirer Opinion

Handful of ashes

/ 09:40 PM February 20, 2012

Ashes will be traced, in the form of a cross, on foreheads in Wednesday rites that start off the season of Lent. Slum dwellers, the “walang ngipin at salawal, drug addicts and jeepney drivers” to the embattled Chief Justice, get the same reminder: “Remember man that you are dust. And unto dust you will return.”

“Death plucks my ears and says: ‘Live—I am coming’,” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote on his 90th birthday. Death comes also to presidents.


Assassin bullets cut down Anwar Sadat in a Cairo reviewing stand, and John F. Kennedy in a Dallas motorcade. In 1957, Ramon Magsaysay’s plane slammed into Mount Manunggal and exploded in a ball of fire.

Cebu PC chief Cornelio Bondad and Lt. Julian Ares were bumped off that “Mount Pinatubo” flight. A spur-of-the-moment invitation, by Magsaysay, gave their seats instead to Sen. Tomas Cabili and Rep. Pedro Lopez.


The first rescue team reached the smoldering wreck and shattered bodies when the sun set the next day. It was led by Lieutenant Ares, now a Chicago retiree. Magsaysay’s seared remains were identified from his wristwatch.

All year round, we all dodge the reality of mortality. Quit shilly-shallying and get real, Ash Wednesday drills into us. We’re all flawed and “journeying to the grave.”

“This court will resume tomorrow at two o’clock in the afternoon,” impeachment presiding officer Juan Ponce Enrile rasps as he gavels the end of the day’s often-gruelling session.

“Presume not to promise yourself the next morning,” 14th-century writer Thomas a’ Kempis counsels. “And in the morning, consider you may not live till nightfall… Many die when they least think of it… A man is here today. And tomorrow, he is gone. And when he is taken out of sight, he is also quickly out of mind.”

Ask therefore “what if this day were to be my last?” suggests Augustine “Og” Mandino II, World War II bombardier turned author. “This day is all I have… Each hour cannot be banked today to be withdrawn on the morrow, for who can trap the wind?

“Today, I shall embrace my children and my woman. Tomorrow, they will be gone. And so will I. Today, I will lift up a friend in need. Tomorrow, he will no longer cry for help. Nor will I hear his cries… Tomorrow, I will have nothing to give. And there will be none to receive.

“Each minute of today must be more fruitful than the hours of yesterday… I will live today as if it is my last. And if it is not, I shall fall on my knees to give thanks.”


Foreheads smudged with ashes Wednesday signal the start of the 40-day season of Lent. Dusting with ashes, as a sign of contrition, goes back centuries. “The other eye wandereth of its own accord,” Job admits. “Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

By the 8th century, the “Day of  Ashes” rites had become common throughout the church. Post-Vatican II formulations are drawn from Mark. “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel,” one says. The other states: “Repent, and hear the good news.”

Wednesday’s ashes come from burnt Palm Sunday 2011 fronds. With oil of the catechumens, ashes are stirred into a paste. Then, a priest or lay minister traces the moist dust, in the form of a cross, on foreheads.

The rite harks back to the shattering 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.”

“What is the meaning of our strange behavior?” asks Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams 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 toward 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.

“We are able to ponder our ashes with/Some confidence, only because our every Wednesday of ashes/Anticipates your Easter victory over that dry, flaky taste of death,” Walter Brueggemann, notes in his poem: “Marked by Ashes.”

Must this rebooting start on Wednesdays? asks the Philippine Jesuit website. Coming in the middle of things, Lent demands that we stop and break mid-stride, mid-sentence, even mid-thought. We must  take stock…. What is truly important?

“We all have our histories and pasts to deal with,” writes  Fr. Daniel Huang S.J. But coming in the middle of things, Lent gives hope. “No matter how old we are—7 or 97—it is never too late to move, one small, faltering, but real step at a time.”

Those smudged ashes acknowledge that, in the end, it’s not the fault of MILF, al-Qaida (or sealed dollar accounts and juggled statements of assets and liabilities). Ash Wednesday is facing the truth of darkness in our hearts.

“We refuse to evade responsibility, to point fingers at someone else, to find convenient scapegoats, to practice our Filipino cultural expertise in palusot. This is not mass masochism, communal guilt-tripping, just plain honesty…. In the end, it is our fault.

“We must refuse to remain paralyzed by self-pitying powerlessness that says ‘hindi ko kaya, ganito na talaga ako, di ko na kayang magbago’,” Huang adds. This is possible because of  “the utter gratuity of grace.”

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.

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TAGS: Ash Wednesday, featured column, Lenten season, mortality, opinion
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