It's Ash Wednesday
today; Lent starts
By MA. Ceres P. Doyo
Philippine Daily Inquirer, 17 February 1999
TODAY Christendom observes Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.
The story about the rape of David's daughter Tamar by her brother Ammon, although not one of the regular Bible readings for Ash Wednesday, is one of the Old Testament readings depicting the use of ashes as a sign of mourning and repentance.
It is, therefore, one of the suggested readings for those interested in the subject of ashes and sackcloth and the meaning of Ash Wednesday: "Tamar then put ashes on her head and tore the robe she was wearing." (2 Samuel 13: 19)
The virgin Tamar was raped by her own lustful brother who plotted his evil intention so craftily that she did not know a trap had been set for her. The story line is being reenacted again and again in this modern society that has yet to break free from the culture of rape of human beings and of nature.
Enough, we are reminded.
Ashes, an ancient symbol of penance used by the ancient Jews, also had an important
meaning for other pre-Christian cultures. Other readings on ashes and repentance
are found in Ester 4:13, Job 42:6 and Jeremiah 6:26.
Ashes and dust have been used interchangeably to stress not only penance but also the inevitability of physical death and decay. It was first heard from the angry God of Genesis: "With sweat on your face you will eat your bread, until you return to clay, for it was from clay that you were taken, for you are dust and unto dust you shall return."
The last part is what the priest (or a designated minister) says as he/she puts ash in the form of a cross on the foreheads of the Catholic faithful. It is not only a reminder, it is also a call to conversion.
Today's Old Testament reading has the compassionate Yahweh calling out: "Rend your heart, not your garment... I am sending you grain, new wine and oil . . ." (Joel 2:12-18).
But Jesus in today's New Testament reading (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18) warns against a showy display of repentance: "When you fast, do not put on a miserable face as do the hypocrites."
In the days of old, the faithful were supposed to wipe away the ashes on their forehead when they left the church. The mark of the ashes was to be kept in their hearts instead.
As Yahweh reminded: "See the fast that pleases me: to break the fetters of injustice ... and set the oppressed free." (Isaiah 58:6)
But today, people need more visible signs and symbols, much like the people of Bethsaida and Chorazin who could not read them even with their eyes wide open.
The blessing of the ashes used to be one of the greatest liturgical rites of the year. It was originally intended for public penitents, but now it is for all. The ashes come from the burned palms or olive branches used in the previous year's celebration of Palm Sunday.
There are priests who feel that the significance of the ashes is starting to be lost on many Christians who have become too engrossed in the concerns of daily living. If at all they find the time, these Christians wearily queue up in church, get their foreheads "stamped," and then walk away.
Some priests suggest that people get involved and do the ritual themselves by bringing blessed ashes to their work place or their neighborhood, and performing a meaningful rite of repentance of their own. But this needs preparation.
"It seems humans have lost their way in the order of things. We live in a society that has very little to offer in terms of the meaning of life," says Columban priest John Leydon, an ecologist.
"Is the greatest one the one who dies with the most toys? Lent is the time for us to go a layer deeper into ourselves in preparation for the Paschal Mystery. Easter is the consummation of the wedding of the human and the divine."
Forty days after Ash Wednesday comes Palm Sunday, the harbinger of Easter.
Forty is a biblical number. The Great Deluge lasted for 40 days and 40 nights. The Chosen People traveled 40 years in the desert before they reached the Promised Land. Jesus fasted for 40 days.
"We're all terminal beings," Leydon adds. "We only have so many number of heartbeats, Death should give us a focus in our lives. We are a strange species. We love life so much, and we fear that this is all going to end. But death can be liberating."
And so in this first week of Lent, we are reminded through the liturgy: A handful of dust and ashes is what our human body will eventually be reduced to. To rise again as new life.
That is the law of creation.