Arise From The Ashes
We are called to renew ourselves every day,
to experience the refreshing and purifying love of God in our lives.
Catholics all over the world liturgically begin the season of Lent with the imposition of ashes on the forehead together with fasting and abstinence. This practice, which is an expression of grief, repentance and sorrow, is one of the ritual gestures Catholic Christians share with their Jewish brethren.
In the Old Testament, there were many instances when Jews imposed ashes upon themselves to show their sorrow, contrition and mourning. To cite some examples, we have the story of David donning sackcloth and ashes when the prophet Nathan reprimanded him because of his illicit relationship with Bathsheba. We heard of the story of Mordecai, who upon knowing the impending destruction of the Jews due to the malicious plots of Haman, also wore sackcloth and imposed ashes upon himself.
For us Catholics, there is an added meaning to the symbol of the ash. It reminds us of our human origin. The traditional formula "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return" during the imposition of the ashes succinctly describes humanity's lowly origin and thus the call for repentance and humility. The Ash connects us to the virtue of humility for after all man comes from dust and all his vanities will similarly turn to dust.
The ash is a fitting symbol of the destructive power of sin. Let us reflect further on ash as a by-product of fire. Fire is one powerful element in nature. It devours everything along its path and without any exemption turns everything it touches into ash. When I was a young boy, I was able to witness the burning of almost forty houses from a fire coming from a pyrotechnic factory. It was a terrible sight. The sky was dark with thick smoke, and the sound of burning lumber struck terror to the heart. It was as if the fire was ready to devour the whole town. After the firefighters extinguished the fire, there was nothing left but ashes and some blackened posts perilously standing among the ruins.
Sin is like fire. It destroys everything by destroying our relationships with our fellowmen and with God. When we are imposed with ashes on Ash Wednesday, it is our public recognition of our sinful ways. At the same time, it is our humble admittance of our contribution to the destruction of humanity because of our sins. The sight of people with ashes on their foreheads is a strong reminder of the destruction sin has brought to us. It is like having the whole world burned and reduced to ash by the fire of sin. Sin has reduced humanity to rubble and ash.
However, this is only one side of the story.
I remember when I was a child I always watched the farm workers cut sugarcane during the sugar-milling season. When the land is already cleared of the sugarcane the farmers burn the dried leaves and stump. I can recall vividly the thick clouds of smoke and the orange glow the burning fields cast upon the evening sky. When I asked the farmers why they were burning the fields, the farmers told me that it made the soil fertile because the ashes provide the nutrients.
When I was in college, I learned during my chemistry courses that ashes actually help in balancing the acid/base levels of the soil and that promote optimal growth for sugarcane. In this way, the ash "brings back" the nutrients and fertility of the land. I propose that this is the other side of the story about the ashes on our foreheads. The ash is also the symbol of our affirmation of the creative potency to do good present within each man and woman. To place ashes on our foreheads is to affirm that in every one of us there is the capacity to arise from our sinfulness by the help of God's grace because the Lord created us "good" not evil.
Lent is not a time for morose and depressive "navel gazing" of our sins. Rather, it is a grace filled moment for growth by which we nurture what is good in us. It is an opportunity to allow the creative goodness in every man and woman to spring out once more in this world making the loving Presence of God felt by those who are downtrodden and the least among us.
In the Philippines, the ashes used for imposition come from burning the coconut leaves blessed during the Palm Sunday of the previous year. I consider this symbolism significant because it points towards the centrality of Jesus. The ash becomes the symbol of our innate capacity or potentiality to grow into holiness precisely because it draws its vitality from the Passion of the Lord. The imposition of ashes becomes a potent reminder for us that our capacity to become holy is made possible because Jesus offered himself in humility and in submission to the will of the Father. Thus, it is only through the merits of the Passion of Jesus that we are made good again.
To celebrate Lent with the ashes on our foreheads is to claim that we as Christians are a work in progress. Our state of being is in a continuous process of growing, a dynamic movement towards becoming like Jesus. In other words, we Christians are called to rise above our sinful inclinations by practicing the Gospel values in our lives. Lent is an intense moment of grace when we can put into action the demands of unselfish love patterned after the love of the Crucified Christ.