[Homily: Ash Wednesday, 2012]
One of the formulae used in the impositions of ashes on this day is: “Remember man that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” I am not sure how old this particular formula is. It is a formula that reminds us all that we are mortal, made from the dust of the earth, alive, surprisingly alive, wonderfully alive, but subject inexorably to death, the decay of the flesh, and its return to dust.
It is a formula that begins the season of Lent, the 40-day season of fasting, penance, and preparation for the celebration of the suffering death and resurrection of the Lord. Reminding us of our mortality, the formula helps us appreciate the importance of time, that whether we live for twenty years, or forty, or sixty, or ninety, or even a hundred and ten years, time ends. Our time ends. Time, limited, is therefore time precious. Do not waste it!
Of course, the cynic can say: If our time comes to an end, there is no need to care for it. For as life comes from dust, it all ends in dust. That is why the formula, “Remember man that you are dust and unto dust you shall return,” is totally false and misleading if taken out of context; it needs to be complemented by another formula, “Repent and believe in the Gospel!” Because time is precious, recall the Gospel, the Good News of God creating time, of God creating space, of God creating this world, and us in this world, and loving us beyond imagination.
With the imposition of ashes, then: Remember man, remember woman, how precious time is, and how much it is that God loves you!
God loves you in your parents, in the manner in which they cared for you as children, in the sacrifices they make to give you an education. Remember that! God loves you in your teachers, in their labors to help you learn, in their dreams to see you succeed. Remember that! God loves you in your students, in their smiles of recognition in the corridors, in their gratitude for all your work, in their achievements through all you have given them. Remember that! God loves you in your spouses, in the intimacy of their love, in the warmth of family life. God loves you in your children, in the wonder of their smiles, in the warmth of their hugs… Remember that! God loves you in your friends, in the dancing and cheering of college days, in the studying and shared work to get the projects done, in the shared efforts to help victims of typhoons or floods.
Remember God’s love, and so this day, remember the incongruences that come with this memory. Remember how you could get so wrapped up in what you are doing, that you forgot… Remember how you were so intent on succeeding that you didn’t think twice about cheating. Remember how you needed to get ahead, and you did so at the expense of your friend. Remember how you were so much in love, that you violated boundaries dictated by love. Remember when you were so desperate, you did not tell the truth, you lied, and violated the trust that had been reposed on you. Remember how in your pigheadedness you sometimes did not care how much you hurt others, how in your cynicism you often deflected the truth from your self, how with all your intelligence, you were able to rationalize almost anything that you did, even though your conscience was crying to be heard. Remember how in glancing at a church on a Sunday or in looking at a Crucifix you walked away.
Remember… And with the imposition of today’s ashes, remember the Gospel, that is, remember the love of the Lord. Remember the love of the Lord in the gentleness of the breeze or in the wetness of the rain. Remember it in the darkness broken by the flickering candle, or in the night overcome by the rising sun. Remember it in the tears of your weeping, or in the paralysis of your depression. Remember it, in the words of the Lord addressed to the paralytic brought to him by his friends, “Your sins are forgiven you. Take up your pallet and walk.” Remember it in the eyes of the crucified Lord gazing into yours with love.
The Lord’s message today, no matter how far you have wandered from the Lord, no matter how seriously you know you have sinned, no matter how damned intelligent you are, is: “Return to me!” This ring of your birthright, these sandals, this coat of many colors: they are yours. “Return to me! Return to my embrace!”
If in response to this invitation, you feel you wish to disintegrate in ashes of shame, you feel confused that despite your many pimples you can still be considered desirable, or despite your cancer you still can be called to life, or despite your not having taken a bath, your being smelly and sweaty and dirty, you are being pulled into God’s embrace, be encouraged. That is grace. That is a grace you can stay with throughout these forty days of Lent. The Lord says, “Rend your heart, not your garments.” Perhaps in these feelings of shame and confusion, you are already rending your heart.
Be encouraged, even in shame and confusion. Sometimes we think we have the world all figured out. Until we make a mistake. Then, that disappointment with myself comes! Then, that heart-rending bewilderment that I could have done what I did! Pray, indeed, for shame and confusion – which is really a function of self-respect. Or, of God-respect! Little is more disgusting than people who are offensive to other persons and have no shame. Little is more insulting in the Philippines that to have to hear, “Walang hiya ka!” We have to wonder how we can be so offensive to God and feel no shame. We have to wonder how we can rationalize our wrongs and feel no confusion, cause so much disorder and have no insight into our disorder.
Perhaps it is in shame and confusion before this God both just and merciful, that one can finally come to a point where one says, “I’m sorry.” “Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness; in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offence… For I acknowledge my offense, and my sin is before me always. Against you alone have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Ps. 51).
Our reading says: “The Lord is kind and merciful. He is slow to anger and rich in mercy” (Joel, 2:13) It is in this kindness that you are able to look at the truth of your life. It is in this mercy that you know you have hope.
In this Lenten season: Remember man, remember woman, that you are dust, and unto God you must return!