Matthew 6:1-6; 16-18, Ash Wednesday 2016
For most of her life, my mom used to run a small botica in a marketplace. It was our bread and butter for many years. One morning, I woke up to the scariest sound I ever heard in my life: the sound of mom wailing. Our botica had burned in a fire that started in the slums. Nothing was left of the botica. Later that morning, dad and I went back to the scene. Ashes. Everywhere. I remember wondering if there were some way we could gather the ashes, and bring them to someone who could magically restore them to what they once were—like back to the plywood, back to the beams, the posts they once were, back to the pills, the tablets, the bottles—just so we could move on from this nightmare, so mom could stop wailing. Of course, it was just a bizarre fantasy spun out of desperation. You couldn’t resurrect anything out of the ashes. Ashes were ashes. They were nothing—visible, touchable nothing.
We read the same Gospel every Ash Wednesday. And because lent is a time of charitable works, prayer, fasting, we’ve taken it for granted that this gospel is about charitable works, prayer, and fasting, haven’t we? But go back to the original context of the story, that’s only half the point. Jesus isn’t telling people to give alms; he already presumes that. But to not make a show of it, that’s the point. Jesus isn’t telling people to pray either. He presumes they do already. But to pray out of sight, that’s the point. Jesus also presumes that people fast already, so he’s not about to tell them that again. But to not call attention to oneself as one fasts, there lies the imperative.
So more than giving alms or praying or fasting, the crux of Jesus’ words every Ash Wednesday is really humility, isn’t it? The kind of humility that entails hiding, concealment; keeping to ourselves the things we give up for the other’s sake; going on the down-low with our spiritual life, pursing our lips from referencing our self-imposed penances.
Jesus knew very well then, as we do now, that when we do things for others and for God but call attention to ourselves, then it’s a slippery slope towards the whole thing becoming all about us, rather than about God. And forgive me for what I’m about to say next, and I include myself in this because I’m equally guilty: the Gospel is incredibly apropos to us, Ateneans—because our hubris is legendary. Our reputation for being proud precedes us. (And it’s okay to admit it. It’s Lent!) We do self-reference a bit too much. We self-praise a little too vociferously. From our brand of English to our brand-consciousness; from what we post on social media to the 99% self-congratulatory announcements looping on our Blue Board along Katipunan; from the little things we kvetch about to the horrors we shout to the other teams during games. Our hubris is legendary, and many of us are proud of it!
But then comes fire for the burning. And I’m not talking about hell-fire. I’m talking about how our hubris can and have burned us many times. There’s good reason why hubris has ruined many heroes in ancient legends across tribes and cultures. Because it has happened too often, sisters and brothers, when we set ourselves alight with hubris, the flame also exposes our darkness. It leaks our secret sins and divulges the half-lie of our half-truths. Our hubris strips bare our hypocrisy and releases our stink. It happened to the Pharisees then, it has also happened even to the church these past many years. When we, the clergy, waxed higher and mightier, the blaze of scandals chastened us. And we have seen that even Eagles fall from flying too close to the sun. We just don’t fall by hubris, by the way. We crash and burn…to ashes.
By the cross that we bear on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday, we tell ourselves and each other that we are nothing without God, nothing. We are ashes without God. In fact, it was by a heroic act of unbelievable humility, however, that that cross redeemed the world. So maybe, this Lent, we can work together on our humility. Maybe we can ask for the grace to be more self-reproachful, more self-accusatory. Maybe we can ask the Lord to stop us short from saying anything or doing anything out of self-glorification even of the subtlest kind—what we call the “humble brag”. Maybe we can try to not even talk about what we’re giving up for Lent, even if it makes for good and funny conversation.
For some reason, the year of mercy crosses my mind right now—and I figured, don’t we find it difficult to feel sorry for the proud? Mahirap kaawaan ang mayabang. Jesus has enough parables showing that even he had difficulty having mercy on the proud. I’m sure it’s not impossible for God to have mercy on the proud. But maybe we can make it a bit easier for God this lent, by remembering that like ash, we are worth nothing, we are nothing—if not for Christ’s cross…that has saved us and pardoned us and restored us and rebuilt us and proved to us that we we are everything to God. On the one hand, we are nothing without God. Yet, seeing a son on a cross, we are everything to God.
In that mysterious, mind-blowing act of salvation wrought by one man’s incredible humility, there is absolutely no place for our hubris.