“Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”
“Repent and believe in the Gospel.”
“Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”
It is Ash Wednesday once again and these are three of the possible verses or imperatives one would hear a priest say as he marks the forehead of believers with ashes. Each time we hear any of these lines as we enter into the Lenten observance, we do not only feel the seriousness of the call, we are also confronted by our own mortality. But, come to think of it, living in this day and age is a daily confrontation with our human mortality via the daily doze of natural catastrophes and tragedies brought about by human folly. If you were living in the Philippines right now, the general feeling is even worse after successive events of multiple deaths that shocked our entire nation. I do not even wish to enumerate them here anymore or that might mean sprinkling sulfur upon still gaping wounds.
But are Ash Wednesday and Lent all about just that — the annual reminder of the inevitable end or death of the human body and the sinfulness or corruptibility of the human soul? No, definitely not. It is just that many would rather prefer to hear something more positive and encouraging than pinning each other down with the hard fact that no one can erase in aeternam — death and sin by whatever order. Not that we’d rather be escapists this year’s Lent but that we would prefer to hear more of the unexplored, unspoken, untried thoughts and ideas about this season at hand. To put it in other words, there are other better, more optimistic means of explaining this human reality without downplaying its significance. It’s a matter of shifting the focus from the oft-repeated, already known themes to the neglected other sides of the picture.
There is this precept in philosophy that says to say one thing is to mean its exact opposite; or, to negate a principle is to affirm the other at the opposite end of the spectrum. Searching deeper into today’s Gospel, we are brought to the light of its real meaning by using the philosophy mentioned above. When Jesus said, “Do not be like the hypocrites,” he meant to say, literally “Unmask yourselves, or hide not behind any mask!” and figuratively, “Be authentic! Be real! Live in the light of truth!” The advice (1) not to perform righteous deeds or even pray for the public to see, (2) not to blow a trumpet when giving alms, and (3) not to look gloomy when fasting all lead to the very positive, resonant call to purify one’s ulterior motives or dark intentions.
At times it is just a matter of simple re-languaging from the negative form to positive. So, to speak of sin and death is actually to affirm our being forgiven and the promise of resurrection in Jesus Christ. In the same breadth, to excessively highlight Jesus Christ’s passion and death, which is often the case here in the Philippines, is an invitation to bring to fuller attention His Life — His missionary work in the name of the Kingdom, His zeal for the salvation of the suffering in His era’s here-and-now with the promise of salvation at the end time, His various expressions of the Father’s love and mercy for all, His rebuke of hypocrisy, His call to conversion, His being the Good News himself and all other things had led to His death on the cross. How Jesus lived was and still is never less significant than how He died.
One might easily protest and say that the Church has the entire year of such Gospel readings, so why should we go through it all again this Lent? Halt just a sec! The key here is not the Gospel readings but the How of Living and Loving. The call of Lent beginning with Ash Wednesday is not death but life — how one is able to integrate into his life the lessons we all heard from the Gospel readings on the life and works of Christ during the so-called Ordinary Time.
Now here is one of those tricky Catholic terms — Ordinary Time — which turns problematic when left unexplained. Just because many often think of “ordinary” as the state of the usual experience of one considers normal, the life of Jesus as spoken of in the Gospel readings at that said period is also construed to be just that: ordinary, common, nothing special, boring, trite, stale, old news and no longer Good News. If the oft-repeated themes of sin and death are added to this, then we can expect a lethal concoction of spiritual dryness and downward spiraling faith.
This is why we’d rather focus on the more affirmative, more optimistic view of Ash Wednesday and Lent so as to make more meaningful and more fruitful our observance of the season in the midst of natural and synthetic tragedies. Allow me then to share with you what one of our Theology professors repeatedly emphasized about Lent in her personal effort to make the Christian message more positive: that Lent is “the 40 (plus three more) days for us to try to live as sacraments, living and visible signs of God’s invisible grace.”
Cardinal Bérulle and St. Jean Eudes expressed this ideal in the 17th century as “Live Jesus” to which were added “…in our hearts” by St. Jean-Baptiste de la Salle two or so centuries later. Can anything be more encouraging, hopeful and affirmative than that? Those saintly guys desired for all Christians to “live Jesus in our hearts” daily. There is no better season to start than Lent.
Going back to the problematic term “ordinary time,” if we try to connect the Christian adjective “ordinary” with the verb “ordain” then we’ll soon realize that “ordinary time” in our liturgical calendar means “God’s ordained or appointed time” and definitely not just anything common or usual. Given this alternative view, we might be better convinced by those previously mentioned saints that indeed each day is a call to “live Jesus…in our hearts,” and that there may also be no more need for us to wait for Lent to do so. The how of it, however, is up to each of us.
PRAYER: Lord, we have so often been bombarded by the depressing though ever true and important themes of sin and death each time the Lenten season comes, so that we had lost sight of the more positive messages hidden behind them, those of forgiveness and renewed life which were inspired by Your life well lived here on earth. No, we won’t forget to silence ourselves and contemplate, and neither will we omit repenting for our transgressions. Rather, after prayer and reparation, we desire to live in the hope of being forgiven and the joy of renewed life, which for us is the authentic message of Lent. Grant us, we pray, the will to embrace this so that we may be able to make them real for ourselves and for others through our works of love, mercy and compassion. May the season transform us into visible, human signs of your invisible, inward grace by living out Jesus Christ. Amen.