This week we Catholics celebrate Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.

A lot of good Catholics were slightly hung over from too much Mardi Gras on Tuesday, but never mind: The idea is that “there is a time to party and a time to fast”, and now the time to fast has arrived.

Traditionally, at church, the priest will place a smudge of ashes on your forehead, reminding us that we will someday die: Remember man, thou art dust and into dust thou shalt return. (I prefer the old fashioned translation).

So if you live in the Philippines, you see a lot of dirty foreheads, for getting ashes is a big thing.

But it’s not just in the Philippines: in the USA, even the Protestants are now copying the catholic custom and giving out ashes, but as the WaPo notes:

sporting ashes seems especially prominent among Catholics. In fact, it is one of those signs of Catholic identity that people notice on the street and in the workplace.

Ted Turner once ridiculed his staff who had left the ash residue on their foreheads (You aren’t supposed to wipe it off)…Turner is of course from the Bible Belt south …and of course, Turner is a famous atheist, but like many other prominent Atheists he doesn’t disbelieve in God, he hate the deity for a sibling’s unfortunate death. I mean, who hates a fantasy?Hence the attitude of believers to such gibes should be a quiet prayer for his sorrow.

But like most customs, it is a “sacramental sign”: with deep illusions to many things that point us to God. Catholicism is not science: It is closer to art, and when given a choice of A versus B, we usually answer: A, and B and C and D, because symbolism has many meanings, most of which remind us of the deeper meaning of life.

For example: where do they get the ash?

Answer: the ash is made from last year’s palms from Palm Sunday, which had been blessed. (In Catholic custom, if you have a holy object to discard, you either burn or return it/bury it the ground).

So why a Palm? Well, the palm first signaled the “palm of victory” (Jesus being hailed as king by folks holding palm branches). The Palm is also the palm of martyrdom (if you see a Catholic picture of someone holding a palm, he was martyred). And now it becomes ash, referring to the idea of repentance (saying one is sorry for doing wrong) which in the old Testament is often associated with dust and ashes.

But it also reminds us that we too will die and turn to ashes. (Remember man thou art dust and into dust thou shalt return).

Winston Churchill once quipped that  the prospect of being hanged focuses the mind wonderfully; so the Ash placed on the head of Catholics is to remind them they will die one of these days, and that they should starting pondering their lives, and maybe straighten up their lives a bit.

This is a good lesson for all and sundry: Sometimes when I had patients who worried to much about trivia, I would have them spend a week of life review: First you read a profound book (the bible, poetry, a classic novel, etc) and then, when the reading has quieted your busy mind, you spend a bit of time looking on your life as if you were 90, and see it objectively from a distance.

Some of our short term choices that seem so wonderful alas turn out to be those that bend out lives to terrible ends because we don’t see them in perspective. And some of our choices in the past we now see as mistakes, and need to recognize it so we don’t make them again, or maybe apologize to others who we have hurt, or maybe even do something so that others don’t make similar mistakes.

Know thyself, says the philosopher, and it is good advice for a world of busyness and materialism, where introspection is usually rare and spirituality is diminished into bible quotes (usually that criticize our neighbor)  or pop spirituality of the “I’m okay you’re okay” type that sees no evil (and feels superior to those primitive types who at least try to recognize the reality of evil).

Most of the mass readings are now about turning your life around, and not just vague or warm fuzzy stuff: This if from today’s mass:

This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed,
breaking every yoke;
Sharing your bread with the hungry,
sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;
Clothing the naked when you see them,
and not turning your back on your own.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed;

Which goes against the pop spirituality of becoming rich and successful. Of course, in today’s liberal work, you can become an instant “good guy” if one supports the President’s policies, where government does all these things for you, allowing you to live your own happy successful life without having to do anything practical that might be unpleasant, like changing the diaper.

Not according to Isaiah.

Some of us have been lucky enough to have the opportunity to work with the poor and sick, but his instructions also point to the deeds of ordinary folk with less glamourous jobs than doing surgery in an isolated rural third world hospital.

Giving drink to the thirsty might mean nursing your child, or getting Lolo some cold water by his bedside. Feeding the hungry might mean getting food for your teenagers and their five hungry friends who just got home from school. And sheltering the homeless might mean volunteering at a homeless shelter: or simply not aborting one’s child or grandchild and welcoming these unexpected strangers into your home with love.Many people, in their daily lives, indeed do these things, quietly, with little praise or recognition. The FCA estimates 29% of Americans are caretakers of their disabled or elderly family members, and the number is probably higher if you add those caring for small children.

This too is where Lent comes in, to remind us that (to use the old fashioned phrase) that we toil in a vale of tears, but that God will help us bear our burden and make it light, and that when we mourn he will wash our tears away.

Getting up at night to feed the baby or help Grandmom is not a meaningless chore, for every small deed makes the world a little better.

Nor is this observation one only limited to overly pious religious people: As that good atheist Camus once wrote:

If we listen attentively, we shall hear amid the uproar of empires and nations, the faint fluttering of wings, the gentle stirring of life and hope. Some say this hope lies in a nation, others in a man. I believe, rather, that it is awakened, revived, nourished by millions of solitary individuals whose deeds and words every day negate frontiers and the crudest implications of history.

The Irish prayer for Lent reminds us of this:

Merciful God, you called us forth from the dust of the earth;

you claimed us for Christ in the waters of baptism.

Look upon us as we enter these Forty Days bearing the mark of ashes,

and bless our journey through the desert of Lent to the font of rebirth.

May our fasting be hunger for justice;

our alms, a making of peace;

our prayer, the chant of humble and grateful hearts.

All that we do and pray is in the name of Jesus.

For in his cross you proclaim your love for ever and ever.

From Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers

So the ashes of Ash Wednesday also remind us, that even though we are travelers in a desert of pain and toil, that we also have hope that these little actions of love do matter


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines.

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