Ash Wednesday: Return to the Heart

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Ash Wednesday marks the start of the Lenten season which is a call to return to the heart. This implies that Lent most of all is a call to a transformation from the deepest core of our being.  Although in Lent we will be doing many sacrificial and penitential acts, all these will come to nothing if there is no genuine inner transformation.

At the heart of our faith is our connectedness with all life rooted in God’s love. We are a being-in-connection not in-isolation. In this context, sin is the condition where we become separated or isolated from God, from others and from ourselves. Thus, during this Lent we are called to reconcile and heal whatever brokenness that has become of our relationship with God, others and ourselves.

Today is called Ash Wednesday because of the ritual of the imposition of ashes on the head during the liturgy of the day. The celebrant says the words: “You are dust and to dust you shall return, (cf. Gen 3:19).” The newer form is Jesus’ exhortation: “Repent and believe the gospel (Mk 1:15).” I kind of prefer the old formula even if is a bit morbid as it reminds us of our death. For me, however, it captures more the penitential character of Lent and the call to return to our origin as well as our end, symbolized by the dust, soil or earth. The earth more profoundly symbolizes the interconnectedness of all life rooted in God’s love.

The readings today expresses these calls to return to the heart and to our connectedness with all life rooted in God’s love.

The first reading from the prophet Joel proclaims the call to a wholehearted return to God: “Return to me with all your heart” (2:12). To return to the Lord with all of our heart means an inner conversion that reaches the deepest place of our selves not merely superficial nor external one. As the prophet says, “Rend your hearts, not your garments.” The heart, as we all believe, is the symbol of love and also the core of our being where our decisions and our attitudes mature.

St. Paul in the second reading also repeats the call to return to God: “We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Cor 5:20)” St. Paul insists that we can return to God not through our own effort but primarily through the love of the Father for us who did not hesitate to sacrifice his only Son.

In the Gospel from Matthew, Jesus reinterprets the three works of mercy prescribed by the Mosaic law: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. Jesus warns the people that if these three pillars are not observed through the love and the mercy of God it will be hypocritical. This has been shown over time through the practices of false religious leaders by their insistence on external formalism and social reward. Jesus invites us to do these works without any ostentation and public accolade, but only the reward of the love of the Father “who sees in secret” (Mt 6,4.6.18).

On Ash Wednesday, we are called to return to where we came from. The dust or earth is where we originally came from. Remember the story of creation, God created Adam, the first human being from dust. But also the earth is where we shall all return when we die. I am reminded of a popular Tagalog song by the Philippine folk band Asin in the 80s:

Nagmula sa lupa, magbabalik na kusa,
(From earth we came, willingly we shall return)
Ang buhay mong sa lupa nagmula …
(your life from the earth came)

But not just human beings, all things shall fall and return to the earth. All will turn to dust when they die. Thus the earth symbolizes our oneness as created things. This implies further that all creation is connected with each other. We are all creatures in need of one another. No one can live alone and isolated from creation or worst can dominate over creation. The interconnection of all creation is not meant to serve human beings but on the contrary human being are meant to serve and maintain the harmony and interconnectedness of all creation.

All creation is interconnected because it comes from God. We believe in the one God, three persons. While three persons, God is one because of the interconnectedness of God as shown in God’s inner life and God’s mission to all creation. Hence, we are only interconnected because we participate in the interconnectedness of God.

St. Thomas Aquinas explains this profound belief in his notion of God as exitus-reditus of all creation. According to St. Thomas, all things come from God (exitus) and, in different ways, return to him (reditus). For us human beings, however, the coming forth and returning in a special way reflects the inner life of the Trinity. In fact, the coming forth of the Son from the Father and the coming forth of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son are the cause and exemplar of our coming forth and our returning to God as creatures.[1]

Lent is the season of assessing how we have isolated our lives and endangered the web of interconnectedness of life. Lent is the time to examine the patterns of our lives which severed our need for God and one another through our pride, domination, power, self-centeredness, apathy, insecurity, fear, lust, jealousy and other patterns and tendencies that may lead us to sin. Lent is the realization of the drudgery and wretchedness of a life of separation from the love of God, family, others and ultimately our true selves. The spiritual exercises that we are to observe in the Lenten season like prayer, fasting and almsgiving are not merely private nor external show but our internal journey of reconnecting with the love of God in others, in creation and in ourselves.

On this Ash Wednesday, let us once again begin the journey of returning to the heart and reconnecting with the web of the interconnectedness of life rooted in the love of God. Let us begin our preparation for the renewal of our baptismal participation in the resurrection of Jesus by our wholehearted desire to return to God’s love.

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[1] Why Thomism, Dominicana. Accessed 13/02/2018 at https://www.dominicanajournal.org/why-thomism/

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Ash Wednesday: Distribution of Ashes in the Shrine

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Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent and symbolically done through the imposition of the ashes in the form of a cross on the foreheads of the faithful. In the Baclaran shrine, the ashes are distributed by the nuns and seminarians and although there are thousands of people everything is very orderly.

This was not always so.

The first time I encountered the distribution of ashes in the Shrine there were no lines of people, no nuns and no seminarians. Instead there was a massive crowd of people with only one interest and that was to receive the Ashes. And they wanted to do this as soon as possible. In the center was the priest who was being jostled from side to side as each person pushed against the ones near him to speed them up.

The priest was not only distributing ashes but he would also have to return to the church to help give Communions when the time arrived and was also expected to hear confessions when his schedule came due. At some time in the day he would also have to say a Mass and give one or two Novenas. There were of course a number of priests but they were very few compared to the number of people.

Some priests would get behind a low fence at the back of the sacristy and operate from there. This had the advantage of keeping the people in front of you at least, but succeeded in blocking the pathway of people coming out from the church and wanting to go home. Also parts of the fence had barbed wire on the top which meant that the priest had to be alert at all times, something which was almost impossible as the day progressed. Also the Philippine sun always shone brightly on Ash Wednesday, so that by evening the Fathers would be all colors from pink to dark crimson depending on where they had been stationed.

It was only during the late 70s that people thought of allowing nuns and eventually seminarians to distribute the ashes. In those days we had very few seminarians so we had to invite those of other orders, this resulted in a display of nuns from different Congregations as well as seminarians wearing the traditional habits of their order. While being very colorful, the heat of the day and the heavy clothing often resulted in exhausted and sometimes irritable ash distributors.

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Thanks to Vatican II and the new understanding of Liturgical requirements things have improved. And now we can see people lining up to receive the Ashes. We see seminarians in neat barong and nuns in cooler habits distributing the ashes, and most of the time they are under the shade of trees.

Best of all, thanks be to God, many of the nuns are our day to day Mission helpers and the seminarians are from our own seminary.

John Maguire, CSsR

Here is the schedule Ash Wednesday at the shrine.

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