“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These are the powerful words uttered by the priest as he ceremonially places ash on the foreheads of Catholics during the Ash Wednesday celebration, which signals the beginning of the Lenten Season. This year, Ash Wednesday will be tomorrow.
In his Lenten message, Pope Francis reflects on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Lying before the door of the rich man, Lazarus fed on the crumbs falling from his table. This biblical narrative is most timely and appropriate especially today with the unjust persecution of Senator Leila de Lima, the continuing massacre of the poor, and the looming passage of the death penalty bill at the House of Representatives. The trolls and mob cheering these developments can only be chilling for a country that says it is Christian and Catholic. If we hold a mirror to ourselves as a people, we will be shocked at what some of us have become: The opposite of the people of God. We are a people supposedly of faith, love, mercy and compassion, but many of us have become, today, filled with hatred, resentment, vengeance and deceit.
Going back to the parable, Francis tells us in contrast about the rich man who becomes “vain out of greed, his appearances mask [ing] ‘an internal emptiness,’ making him a prisoner of his sin.” He said the rich man’s real problem, then, is that he failed to heed God’s word, and because of this, he lost his love for God and began to despise his neighbor. “The word of God is alive and powerful, capable of converting hearts and leading them back to God,” he said, adding that “when we close our heart to the gift of God’s word, we end up closing our heart to the gift of our brothers and sisters.” Lent, he added, “is the favorable season for renewing our encounter with Christ, living in his word, in the sacraments and in our neighbor.”
What is beautiful about Christianity, notwithstanding the imperfection, inconsistency, and hypocrisy of bishops, religious, priests, and believers (me included), is that it liberally dispenses the message of hope and love to friends and foes alike. Surely, no matter how wretchedly sinful a person might be, Christ’s inexhaustible love and mercy remains available to whosoever chooses to return to his loving embrace. As Francis also once said, “When faced with the gravity of sin, God responds with the fullness of mercy. Mercy will always be greater than any sin, and no one can place limits on the love of God who is ever ready to forgive.”
Mercy then is what the next 40 days is all about. Because I have experienced and continue to experience the Lord’s mercy, in spite of my relentless sinfulness, I would like to accompany my readers during this season of Lent. I will share reflections at least once a week, probably preceding each Sunday of Lent and onwards even to the first weeks of Easter. Aside from the scriptural readings, I will use as material the relevant homilies and addresses of Pope Francis, excerpts from my Lenten reading—Shusako Endo’s novel Silence (that has now been made into a movie by Martin Scorcese), and passages and prayers from the personal spiritual journal I kept during a 30 day Ignatian retreat I experienced in 2015.
We are not at a good time today, in this country and world. In the Middle East and Africa, and here at home with the collapse of the unilateral ceasefires by the New People’s Army and the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the violence of our language precedes and accompanies the bullets and bombs that are killing combatants and civilians alike. Global and domestic politics has reached rock bottom, vicious and poisonous, with narcissistic politicians dominating the headlines and cyberspace. These will worsen before they get better.
This Lent, let’s ask for silence so we can listen to the assurance of salvation. Another, better and kinder world is possible. But before we get there, we must ask forgiveness and convert. Silence will lead our hearts to that moment of metanoia, a word explained very well by Saint Pope Paul VI: “Through the word of Christ a message is transmitted to him which invites him to conversion and grants forgiveness of sins. These gifts he fully attains in baptism. This sacrament, in fact, configures him to the passion, death and resurrection of the Lord, and places the whole future of the life of the baptized under the seal of this mystery. Therefore, following the Master, every Christian must renounce himself, take up his own cross and participate in the sufferings of Christ. Thus transformed into the image of Christ’s death, he is made capable of meditating on the glory of the resurrection.”
Silence will help us see that we have been and are forgiven, that the love and power of God is greater than all the evil in this country and world. Silence will make it easier for us to say yes to the cross and participate in the passion and death of our Lord. Silence will help us rejoice when, come Easter vigil night, we proclaim the Exultet: “This is the night when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death and rose triumphant from the grave . . . O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer! Most blessed of all nights, chosen by God to see Christ rising from the dead!”
And so as Lent begins, I share the prayer with which I began my retreat in 2015. It was suggested to me by my retreat master, Fr. Chris Dumadag, SJ – the novice master of the Society of Jesus, truly a holy priest who understands and teaches young Jesuits nd searching lay persons like me the work of the Spirit. I offer it now to all my reader, so that you will all be graced with silence in this season:
“Slow my pace, Lord. Slow my life. Come sit by me at the well. I am exhausted. Give rest to my heart; bring calm to my feelings.
Come lead me to the mountain. I am empty. Give me these hours the leisure to be still that I savor the quiet of rolling hills, tasting the presence of the Divine.
Bring me from the running of the day and the doing of the duties to the sitting in the evening to know the reward of being.
Set aside the problems of mind; Soothe the aches of the heart; give rest to the body that I hear the music of my being and know a quiet that allows the soaring of the soul.
Be gentle, Teacher, teaching the truth of being. In gentleness, command silence. In stillness, embrace my spiritand re-enkindle with love . . . and opening the embrace give freedom to the soul.
Slow my pace, Spirit of Love. Breathe into my being, Word . . . And with a mighty wind blow the incarnate word to the ends of the earth.”
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