09 March 2011

'Smudged Foreheads' - a reflection for Ash Wednesday

US Navy 080206-N-7869M-057 Electronics Technician 3rd Class Leila Tardieu receives ashes during an Ash Wednesday celebration.

This fine reflection for Ash Wednesday by Cebu-based columnist Juan L. Mercado appeared in yesterday's Visayan Daily Star and in other newspapers. I have highlighted some parts and [added comments].

“Get real” is the jolt that Ash Wednesday delivers. Dust returns to dust is one of the day’s overarching themes. “Death plucks my ears and says Live – I am coming,” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote on his 90th birthday.

Ashes will be traced tomorrow, in the form of a cross, on the forehead of President Benigno Aquino, on those who’ll never be president, thieves in costly barongs to beggars we half see. In a society where over 4.3 million scrounge below poverty thresholds, they blend into the woodwork. [All of us are equal as sinners in need of God's forgiving love].

“Your friend died last night,” a panhandler lisped to the wife as we walked by. Periodically, the wife would hand him some rice, coins or gaudy T-shirts we cringed to wear. Chronic hunger shriveled him into a scrawny man with a gap-toothed smile. “We never learned his name,” the wife murmured.

Tomorrow’s ashes come from burnt Palm Sunday 2010 fronds. With oil of the catechumen, ashes are stirred into a paste. [I don't think this is accurate. The oil of catechumens isn't used]. As priest or lay minister traces the cross on foreheads, he then reaches across the centuries, to echo a shattering sentence first heard in an Eden marred by disobedience: “Remember man, that you are dust. And unto dust you shall return.” [Mr Mercado has no difficulty with 'exclusive' or 'non-inclusive' English!]

Wednesday’s rites remind us of two friends: a young lieutenant and an equally young political activist. They never met. But their paths crossed briefly at the boarding gate for “Mount Pinatubo”, President Ramon Magsaysay’s plane.

President Ramon Magsaysay of the Philippines (31 August 1907 - 17 March 1957)

This was midnight of March 17, fifty four years back. Jesus Rama, younger brother of Journalist Napoleon Rama, came to Cebu’s Lahug airport, to see the President off. Standing in that same crowd was Lt. Julian Ares, then aide-de-camp to Gen. Cornelio Bondad. Both were to fly with the president to Manila.

As Magsaysay strode towards the ramp, he spotted Rama. “Jess,” he said clasping arms around Rama. “Come with me to Manila.” Rama, who had a phobia for flying, pulled back. Friends tut-tutted Rama, advising him: “Just accommodate the president, Jess.” Reluctantly, Rama climbed aboard.

“At Mt. Pinatubo’s door, presidential aide-de-camp Lt. Leopoldo Regis supervised loading,” Ares recalls from his Chicago retirement home. “President Magsaysay was already aboard.”

But at a Club Filipino rally, the President asked Senator Tomas Cabili and Cebu Congressman Pedro Lopez: “Join me.” The plane’s engines idled until Cabili and Lopez hurried aboard.

“Sorry, sir, we must leave you behind,” Lt. Regis apologetically said to the general. “Bondad’s satchel and mine were tossed off the plane.” The door slammed shut. And the reconfigured C47 took off – only to slam into Mt. Mannungal 20 minutes later.

Toiling half way up Mount Mannugal the next day, Ares’ search party met villagers hefting a hammock. In it was the only survivor: Nestor Mata of the Philippines Herald. Ares' team was also the first to reach the still-smoldering wreckage and human ashes just as the sun set.

“Presume not to promise yourself the next morning,” Thomas a’ Kempis counseled. . “And in the morning, consider that 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."…

Ash Wednesday’s counsel is imparted without discrimination: generals who creamed off armed forces funds, pliable justices and ombudsmen, jueteng overlords, even former presidents, who ward off trial while bunkered behind squads of midnight appointees. ['Jueteng' is an illegal form of gambling that makes its organizers rich].

This sacramental signals start of the penitential season of Lent. Fasting for renewal is shared by major faiths. Muslims observe Ramadan. Hindus and Buddhists set aside days for fasting. Jews fast on Yom Kippur. Like Catholics, Anglicans designate Lent as a penitential season.

By the 8th century, “Day of Ashes” rites had become common in the church. But the use of ashes goes way back. “I heard of Thee by hearing of the ear. But now, mine eye seeth Thee,” says an anguished Job to the Voice from the whirlwind. “Wherefore, I …repent in dust and ashes.”

Imelda Marcos receives, in all sincerity, ashes on Wednesday. On Thursday, she scoffs at the US Federal Court’s decision that found the Marcos regime “liable for torture, summary executions and disappearances”. It awarded 7,526 victims token $1,000 checks from the ill-gotten loot.

The class suit “turned into a business,” Imelda sneered. “You spit on the blood of thousands who died for freedom,” snapped Inquirer’s Ma. Ceres Doyo, a martial law victim. “You have no shame.” The English translation loses the Tagalog pungency. Sayang...

Those smeared foreheads mean three things, writes Jesuit Father Danny Huang in an earlier paper: “Writing In The Dust”. We confess. [Lent is a time to take personal responsibility for our sins and to go to confession]. We promise. We hope.

We live in dark times: from Maguindanao murders, abortions to massive theft. “The ashes acknowledge that, in the end, it's not the fault of MILF, Abu Sayyaf or Al Qaeda. It is our fault. Cruelty to utter self-preoccupation, in our hearts, produced bitter fruits. We must face the truth of ourselves and refuse to “practice our Filipino expertise in palusot.” [Social psychologist Dr Patricia Licuanan describes 'palusot' thus: 'We (Filipinos) are impatient and unable to delay gratification or reward, resulting in the use of short cuts, skirting the rules (the palusot syndrome) and in foolhardiness.]

With fasting, almsgiving and prayer, we pledge to move beyond suffocating self-absorption to compassion. We must not remain paralyzed by self-pitying powerlessness. Ganito na talaga ako. Di ko na kayang magbago, it says. Instead, “we move on, one small, faltering, but real step at a time.”

Third, we hope. “We know that the world is not changed by the brute force of arms, but by the power of those whose spirits are made new.” That’s what those smudged foreheads mean.*



shane said...

Hi Father, is there any way I could email you please?

Ma. Milagros said...

Thank you for sharing, Father Sean. Your column is always enriching. By the way, Johnny Mercado is a personal friend of Jun. He and his wife seen together in church in prayer never fail to inspire.

Gingging Dumdum