MANY took some time off to have ashes smeared on foreheads at the start of Lent. The rites jerk us back to the reality we prefer to ignore: that we will die. Ashes to ashes. On this day, at least, we drop all pretenses. We’re all flawed, we admit. And we all are “journeying to the grave.”

“Death plucks my ears and says: Live – I am coming.” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote on his 90th birthday. Thus, ashes will be traced on the forehead of President Rodrigo Duterte to beggars we half see. In a society where over 4.3 million scrounge below poverty thresholds, they blend into the woodwork.

Today’s ashes come from burnt Palm Sunday 2016 fronds. With oil of the catechumen, ashes are stirred into a paste. As 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 are dust. And unto dust you will return.”

“Presume not to promise yourself the next morning,” Thomas a’ Kempis counseled. “And in the morning, consider that you may not live till nightfall…Many die when they least think of it...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.”

“Lent begins with Ash Wednesday. The following 40 days are to see application of the three pillars of asceticism: prayer, fasting and alms giving. They’re to help us get back of basics.

“We are able to ponder our ashness with/ Some confidence, only because our every Wednesday of ashes/ Anticipates your Easter victory over that dry, flaky taste of death,” Walter Brueggemann, notes in his poem: “Marked by Ashes.”

But does this re-examining, rebooting, and resetting have to come on Wednesday? asks the Philippine Jesuit website.

‘Coming in the middle of things, Lent demands we stop and break mid-stride, mid-sentence, and even mid-thought. We must take stock. Where are we now? What have we been doing with ourselves? What is truly important?

“Our lives are not blank slates anymore. We all have our histories and pasts to deal with. But coming in the middle of things, Lent also gives hope. “No matter how old we are –- whether we’re seven or ninety-seven -– we are always still in the middle. There is still always hope. It is never too late to change.”

In his paper, “Writing in the Dust,” Fr. Daniel Huang SJ cautions about the paralyzing effect of “self-pitying powerlessness.” Ganito na talaga ako. Di ko na kayang magbago, it says. Instead, “we move on, one small, faltering but real step at a time” -- possible because of “the utter gratuity of grace, its unearned, unmerited, even inexplicable nature.”

Lent is about unyielding choices. “This day…I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses,” Moses told his rebellious people. ”Choose life, so that you and your children may live.”

Lent is not the end. It is just part of the journey to Easter. “Before the sun sets, take our Wednesday and Easter us”/ Brueggemann writes. “Come here and Easter our Wednesday with/ mercy and justice and peace and generosity.”