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Handful of Ashes

Juan MercadoBy Juan L. Mercado

Ashes will be traced, in form of a cross on foreheads in Wednesday rites that start off :Lent Slum dweller “ walang ngipin at salawal, drug addict, jeepeny driver to 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 also comes to presidents.

Assassin bullets cut down Anwar Sadat in aCairoparade and John F. Kennedy in aDallasmotorcade. In 1957, Ramon Magsaysay’s plane slammed intoMountMannungaland exploded in a ball of fire.

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

The first rescue team reached the smouldering wreck and shattered bodies at sunset the next day.. It was led by Lt. Ares, now aChicagoretiree. .Magsaysay’s remains were identified from his wrist watch.

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

“This court resumes tomorrow at two o’clock in the afternoon,” impeachment presiding officer Juan Ponce Enrile rasps when he gavels end of the day’s 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.”

“What if this day were to be my last?”, asks  Agustine “Og” Mandino II,  World War II bombardier turned author. .“This day is all I have… Each hour can not be banked today to be withdrawn on the morrow, for who can trap the wind?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 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 starts 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, “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, on foreheads of people in queues..

The rite harks back to the shattering sentence handed down in an  Edenmarred 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 Canterburyin 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 asetical pillars of Lent — prayer, fasting and sharing with the needy — is 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 ashness 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 Wednsdays?, asks the Philippine Jesuit website. ‘Coming in the middle of things, Lent demands 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 SJ . . 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 Qaeda ( 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 say..

“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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