The bishop, in one homily, told us to look at our palms and asked: “What letter do you see?” Of course, we replied, “2 Ms.” “Do you know what MM means? It means: Madaling mamatay.” For a joke, I found it to be very funny and yet, nothing could be closer to the truth. Mortality is our destiny. It is written on the palms of our hands.
This is the meaning of the ashes we receive today. They remind us of our humble origin and our tragic destiny. “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” “The Lord God formed man out of the clay of the ground,” so said the Book of Genesis. But to this piece of clay, the Lord gave his Divine Spirit. “God blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being.” This breath of life, God’s Spirit in man, is a pledge of immortality. “Even though man’s nature is mortal, God had destined him not to die. Death was therefore contrary to the plans of God the Creator, and entered the world as a consequence of sin.” (CCC, 1008)
The ashes we receive were last year’s palm branches we waved in acclaiming Christ as King. Last year, these were fresh and green. These were used to glorify God. In a way, last year’s palm branches are a fitting symbol of man, for “the glory of God is man fully alive,” so said St. Ireneus. But as the Catechism said, death entered the world as a consequence of sin. Last year’s palm branches are now ashes and they are now to mark our heads to remind us of what we have become: from bearers of the breath of life, we have become subjects of death. We would have been immune from bodily death had we not sinned. Therefore, today, we are marked with a sign that reminds us of what we are: we are dust and to dust we shall return. If I may use a contemporary image, we are ash tagged today.
The ashes on our heads are not a trophy of holiness. They are rather a badge of shame. We bear them on our heads today as a confession of sinfulness and a reminder of the punishment of death that we shall later endure on account of our sins. Today, we declare a fast. We gather and weep. We say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and make not your heritage a reproach!” As Christ our Lord began his saving work with fasting, so we imitate him. The restoration of the Divine likeness in man begins with fasting and mortification. Indeed, the Lord’s death obtained for us the forgiveness of sins. But by self-abnegation, by fasting and penance, we struggle to be liberated from sinful and worldly attachment so as to be restored in the Divine likeness which we lost on account of sin. We fast and mortify ourselves in reparation for sins and also for the conversion of sinners. The sinners we wish to convert would first of all be our own selves.
At Fatima, our Lady asked the children: “Are you willing to offer yourselves to God and bear all the sufferings he wills to send you, as an act of reparation for the sins by which he is offended, and of supplication for the conversion of sinners?” When the children said that they were willing to suffer, Our Lady responded, “Then you are going to have much to suffer, but the grace of God will be your comfort.”
As we celebrate the centennial of the Fatima apparitions, Ash Wednesday addresses to us the same question: “Are you willing to offer yourselves to God and bear all sufferings?” Let us say, “Yes!” Let us receive the ashes and confess the shame of our sins. And yet, let us keep our fasting, prayer, and almsgiving secret. Secretly, let us struggle and work out our salvation. By prayer, let us deepen our love for God. By fasting and self-denial, let us purify our self-love and struggle to be freed from slavery to the flesh. By almsgiving, let us put into practice our love of neighbor. Guarding against doing things merely for others to see, let us focus on what only God can see: our hearts. In this time of grace, let us beg God for what we really need: his mercy. Let us say to him: Spare your people, O Lord. Be merciful, O Lord for we have sinned!
O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee!