Ashes

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Sunday, March 2, 2014


COME Wednesday, ashes will be traced, in the form of a cross, on foreheads as the Lenten season starts. Slum dwellers, jeepney drivers” to embattled officials in the pork barrel scam get the same reminder: “Remember man that you are dust. And unto dust you will return.”

Ashes will smudged on the forehead of President Benigno Aquino III, on those who’ll never be president, Mayor Mike Rama, bickering city councilors and beggars we half see. In a society where more than 4.3 million scrounge below poverty thresholds, beggars blend into the queue for ashes.

“Your friend died last night,” a panhandler lisped to the wife. Periodically, she’d hand him some rice, coins or gaudy T-shirts we cringed to wear. Chronic hunger shriveled him into a scrawny man with a gap-toothed smile. “We never learned his name,” the wife murmured.

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Wednesday’s ashes come from burnt Palm Sunday 2013 fronds. With oil of the catechumen, ashes are stirred into a paste. A priest or lay minister traces the cross on foreheads. He then reaches across the centuries to echo a shattering sentence first heard in an Eden marred by disobedience: "You will return to the dust where you came.”

The rites remind us of two friends: a young lieutenant and an equally young political activist.
They never met. But their paths crossed briefly at the boarding gate for “Mount Pinatubo,” President Ramon Magsaysay’s plane.

This was midnight of March 17 some 57 years back. Jesus Rama, younger brother of journalist Napoleon Rama, went to Cebu’s Lahug airport to see the President off. Standing in that same crowd was Lt. Julian Ares, then aide-de-camp to Gen. Cornelio Bondad. Both were to fly with the President to Manila.

Magsaysay spotted Rama. “Jess,” he said. “Come with me to Manila.” Rama, who had a phobia for flying, pulled back. Friends tut-tutted Rama, advising him, “Just accommodate the President, Jess.” Reluctantly, Rama climbed aboard.

At a Club Filipino rally earlier, the President asked Sen. Tomas Cabili and Cebu Rep. Pedro Lopez: “Join me.” The plane’s engines idled until Cabili and Lopez hurried aboard.

Presidential aide-de-camp Lt. Leopoldo Regis, who supervised the loading, apologetically told Bondad and Ares: “Sorry, sirs, we must leave you behind.” Bags of Bondad and Ares were off-loaded.

The door slammed shut. And the reconfigured C-47 took off—only to slam into Mt. Manunggal 20 minutes later.

Toiling up Mt. Manunggal the next day, Ares’s search party met villagers hefting, in a hammock, the only survivor: Nestor Mata of the Philippines Herald. Ares’s team was the first to reach the still-smouldering wreckage and human ashes.

“Presume not to promise yourself the next morning,” Thomas à Kempis counseled. “And in the morning, consider that you may not live till nightfall…A man is here today and tomorrow, he is gone. And when he is taken out of sight, he is also quickly out of mind.”

Fasting for renewal is shared by major faiths. Muslims observe Ramadan. Hindus and Buddhists set aside days for fasting. Jews fast on Yom Kippur. By the 8th century, “Day of Ashes” rites had become common in the church.

Post-Vatican II formulations are drawn from Mark. “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel,” one says. The other states: “Repent, and hear the good news.”

But the use of ashes goes back centuries. “I heard of Thee by hearing of the ear. But now, mine eye seeth Thee,” says an anguished Job to the Voice from the whirlwind. “Wherefore, I… repent in dust and ashes.”

That’s what those smudged foreheads, on both scoundrels and saints, mean.

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on March 02, 2014.

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