Ash Wednesday’s Promise of Healing

“Humanity has been deeply wounded—physically, mentally, psychologically and economically—by this pandemic.”

In March of last year, the world, including our country, had to contend with an unknown and mysterious coronavirus that has since affected virtually every inhabitant in every corner of the world. After a year and millions of victims later, we are still in it although every person, every community has now learned to make the necessary adjustments, with the scientific community rushing to understand the virus and finding a cure.

2020 was the year when the world was at a standstill. This year, 2021, is the year hopefully we emerge from this nightmare and start reclaiming our normal lives. Severe disruptions in our lives notwithstanding, we have to continue on living and conduct ourselves with a semblance of normalcy in these abnormal times. And this goes with matters of faith such as the Lenten Season which commences this Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday signals the start of the Season of Lent. As most other liturgies of the Catholic Church during the pandemic, the imposition of ashes on the faithful will also be conducted while observing mandatory health protocols. The radical changes in traditional practices should not distract us from the real message behind Ash Wednesday and Lent.

Following ancient tradition, on this day, Ash Wednesday, the faithful normally troop to the churches for the imposition of ashes on their forehead by the priest or pastor as a symbol of repentance and a reminder of the biblical passage taken from Genesis: “For dust you are and to dust you shall return.” The verse is a continuation of God’s admonition to Adam who listened to his wife and ate the fruit from the forbidden tree. It is also a reminder for us to remain humble and acknowledge our fallen state but by Christ’s passion and death, mankind is reclaimed from death and made co-heirs of eternal life.

In one of his sermons, Pope Francis reflected that we may come from dust and end up as dust; but we can become precious dust if we allow ourselves to be “shaped” by God. “We are dust in the universe,” he said. “Yet we are dust loved by God.” Truly, while we may be inconsequential in comparison to the enormity of the universe, the love of God makes us—this dust- truly special. God’s love has made us more precious than all creation for we are destined for eternal life. “We are the dust of the earth, upon which God has poured out his heaven, the dust that contains his dreams,” he said. “We are God’s hope, his treasure and his glory.”

It is for this reason that Pope Francis, in his sermon last Sunday, February 14, urged the people to remember the closeness, compassion, and tenderness of God. He was reflecting on the Sunday Gospel reading when Christ heals a man with leprosy. The Holy Father said that by healing the man who was unclean, Christ has fulfilled the God News he has announced. “He drew near…Nearness. Compassion.”

The Gospel says that Jesus, seeing the leper, was moved with love, compassion, tenderness. Three words that indicate God’s style. He further said that “God draws near to our lives, he is moved to compassion because of the fate of the wounded humanity that prevents us from being in a relationship with him, with others, and with ourselves.”

Verily, humanity, like the leper in the bible, has been deeply wounded—physically, mentally, psychologically and economically – by this pandemic. We are so wounded that many amongst us have been pushed into the precipice of despair, loneliness, isolation, pain and fear. Yet God’s love, compassion and tenderness remain a wellspring of hope. He is in control and remains close to us and despite our circumstances. He is a faithful God and never abandons his beloved.

The ashes, according to the Holy Father, also remind us of the “dust of death.” “Our earthly possessions will prove useless, dust that scatters, but the love we share—in our families, at work, in the Church, and in the world—will save us, for it will endure forever,” he said.

It is with death in mind that we need to reconcile with God and nurture friendship with him. For God is the Alpha and Omega. He is the creator of life as well as the master of death.

The Holy Father exhorts us to “Let us look inside, into our hearts: how many times do we extinguish the fire of God with the ashes of hypocrisy!”

The pandemic that raged last year and is still raging, albeit with the availability of vaccines, there is growing hope that it will finally be defeated, gives us the clear message that we cannot depend totally on our own devices. For, like Adam and Eve, we are weak and defenseless without God. “Only Jesus, who knows and loves our heart, can heal it. Lent is a time of healing,” Pope Francis rightfully reminds us.

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