"It’s Ash Wednesday. Let us spread the #ashtag"
Today, the Catholic Church celebrates Ash Wednesday. This day marks the beginning of the Lenten season, or the 40-day period of fasting to prepare for the celebration of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection (Paschal Mystery). It is the season where we are reminded to repent from our sins, to fast and abstain, and to do charity works for the poor and needy.
It is an open secret here on Tumblr and in my blog that I am a former seminarian (or more appropriately, a seminarian on regency or break, if ever I decide to return and continue my formation). I studied in the Seminary for eight years - from high school to college, and I have been writing reflections about Lent and being of service to the poor and the needy since I was twelve (I entered the seminary at a young age, so there goes the explanation).
But there is something that I have to confess to you. Something that whenever I remember those events, I have a mix feelings of being ashamed and laughing at it. During my first years in the high school seminary, I look at Ash Wednesday as a punishment. You see, even the required age for fasting and abstinence is 14, there are no exemptions in the Seminary (for obvious reasons, of course). I treat Ash Wednesday then as a ‘hunger strike day’ for we are only served one full meal during the day without merienda. And if you personally know my eating capacity, you will know why I despise a meal-less day.
As I grow up and as I learn more in the Seminary, my perspective has changed. And I should, because Seminary is a place of formation - spiritually, academically, socially, and formation as a mature, young man with the direction to the Priesthood. And even after I left (or shall I say, after being advise to leave) the institution last March 2009 after graduating in Philosophy, even now that I am living in the real world away from the comforts of her confines, I continuously live (and share) most, if not all, the things that I have learned inside. There are no clear indications yet if I would return and pursue my Theological studies but the important thing is, I should and I must strive not to forget those good things.
It has been a busy week for me. Yesterday, I had an epic Los Baños-Santo Tomas-Lipa City-San Jose-Batangas City-Taal-Los Baños to coordinate with different Churches for our school’s annual Lenten Pilgrimage. And today, I sited as a Room Examiner in the National Achievement Test (NAT) at Los Baños National High School. And I have yet to attend an Ash Wednesday Mass and have a cross placed on my forehead.
And to make things worse, I am not feeling were right now (perhaps) due to stress and over-fatigue brought by the activities of the past days and sleepless nights brought by making the examinations and grades of my students. And I am not sure if I can make it to the Church for the 6:00 PM Mass or not.
Looking for something that would inspire me in the beginning of the Lenten season, in case that this bad feeling leads into a knockout, I searched the internet for the homily of Cardinal Tagle and digged the archive of my blog for an Ash Wednesday homily that inspires me even up to this day.
It was the homily of Fr. Thor Villacarlos, former Parish Priest of Saint Therese of the Child Jesus Parish inside UPLB.
He started his homily sharing a stuff that he found on the internet. He said that a particular Christian denomination put up in their website that a mixture of ash and water burns the skin. As most of us know, the ashes being placed on our foreheads is a mixture of ashes (from the palms used on the previous year’s Palm Sunday) and (Holy) water. He consulted the Chemistry Professors of the University and they told him that yes, it is possible to burn one’s skin by a mixture of ash and water (he told us the name of the chemical compound but I forgot it) but the ashes used on Ash Wednesday have a very minimal effect to cause burning. So are they bluffing? Or scaring the faithful? We don’t know.
Why put ashes on our forehead? It is a reminder for us that we came from dust/earth and we would return to it after our death. Faher Thor told us that the mixture of ashes and water is very symbolic since ashes represents a lifeless man and water, the breath of God that created us (if you read the book of Genesis, this will be quite familiar to you). When God breathed to the earth, there was life.
So what is the challenge for us? Father Thor told us that when the Priest (or the Minister) put ashes on our foreheads, this is a invitation for us to ‘return to the earth’. It is an invitation for us to be stoop down from our level, be ‘dirty’, and to be humble. After all, humility came from the Latin word humus which means earth or soil.
But how could we do that in these modern times where everything is fast and everyone is busy? That is where fasting and abstinence would enter. Fasting and abstinence is not just eating less and abstaining from meat. It is also doing less the things that we find addictive - television, alcohol, cigarettes, internet, and everything considered as ‘excess’ and not an essential. And when we have a free time after abstaining (and fasting) from these, then it would be the time to go back to the earth and be dirty.
And after all of these, during the celebration of the Easter Vigil (or the end of the 40-day preparation) and the blessing of fire and water, it is there when we would burn ourselves and walk to God, our savior. So basically, those who posted that a mixture of ashes and water will burn us, is in a way, correct.
Seminarians are known to Priests as omniscient creatures (it is a inside joke actually). I am guilty of this when I was in college since there are Priests and speakers who give us something that we already know and I (together with most of my brothers) would just fake our attention, pretending to be listening. Evn until now that I am already a High School teacher, I sometimes fake my attention to boring speakers thinking that I already know what he/she is delivering. I know, it is a sign of being proud and not being humble.
But I have learned my lesson. Though I cannot say that I am totally doing it, I chose to listen and digest what Father has given us. I have learned that yes, we know things and sometimes, it is our expertise, but we should always be reminded. And we should see things from other people’s perspective.
The Season of Lent is about preparing ourselves. It is the period to give up something and be of service to the needy. Actually, as I have mentioned above, some of the things that we have saved during this season should go to helping the poor and the needy. Some would say that this is hypocrisy on our part, but should it be? I think doing something good at least during a particular period of a year is better than having done nothing at all. And as long as you know what you believe in, as long as you are steadfast on your faith, no hecklers, trolls, haters, and non-believers can shake you.
This is a period of giving up our excess. What would you give up? for me, I think it wold be extra rice. Aside from helping me lose wight, it will help those who are in need by giving them what I should have eaten for my excess consumption. (Lent, as they say, is the best way to lose weight and be of shape.)
In these modern times, is the celebration of Ash Wednesday still relevant? Yes. We need it more during these times when we seem to just think of ourselves and our personal gains.
Let me share with you a beautiful anecdote that happened last year, Ash Wednesday. I accompanied our graduating students to the Retreat House. During the Mass, since the Priest has no one to assist him, I volunteered to render my services as a sacristan. I have avoided in purpose to do services in the Mass after my ‘eviction’ from the Seminary since I want to see things ‘from the opposite side’ and ‘from a different perspective’.The last time I rendered service at the Holy Mass was on April 22, 2009, as a Lector, during my cousin’s wedding. It was also the last time I wore my cassock. It feels good to be back at the Sanctuary, serving the Lord in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
Coincidentally, I was also mistaken as a Priest by some of the Augustinian Nuns at the retreat house. I politely said ‘No I’m not’ to the Nuns and told them that I am one of the students’ teachers. I was surprised to hear their next words. They told me that I have an ‘aura’ (or a ‘vibe’) of a Priest. I just stood there, speechless, and thanked them afterwards when they promised to pray for me and my return in the Seminary.
Even until now, in our school, gradeschoolers (and some high school students) would approach me, grab my hand, and ask for my “blessing” (the traditional “pagmamano”) as if I am a Priest. And who am I to refuse them?
For years, I have turned away from the possibility of returning to the Seminary to continue my Theological studies. Maybe because I am ‘enjoying’ my life outside the Seminary’s confines. But what if these events are God’s way of waking me up from a deep sleep of denial? Of hardheartedness? Of not answering his call - again?
Personally, this Lenten Season is a challenge for me to pray hard(er) and to discern what path to choose in my life. But for now, I will try my best to live and share the message of the Lenten Season to my family, friends, and students. I will strive to give up my ‘excess loads’ - sin, self-centeredness, pride - and to burn myself with love, passion, and dedication to share God’s words and message.
How about you? What would you give up and burn this Lenten season?
Today is the beginning of the Lenten Season. Let us spread the #AshTag. Vaya con Dios!
Photo Above: Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle marks foreheads with ashes to start the 40-day period of Lent. Photo by Paterno Esmaquel II/Rappler