Matthew 6:1-6; 16-18, Ash Wednesday
If today’s Gospel were written in 21st-century vernacular, maybe it would say: “When you do righteous deeds…when you give alms…when you pray…when you fast, please…take care not to post it on Facebook, or announce it on your blog, or humble-brag about it. Most of all, take care not to take a selfie.” Even way back in the Lord’s time, it must have also been so tempting to publicize charity and piety, that Jesus had to finally say something about it, like we read from today’s Gospel. The temptation to self-advertise is ever the same today, if not much easier than before; to take a selfie of our selflessness. It even leaks out off-camera: I call the shots here; my opinion matters the most; the last word will be mine; you answer to no one but me.
The cross of ash on our foreheads, however—it would not make for such a cool selfie, would it? We couldn’t be any less camera-ready when a sooty cross “uglifies” our faces. But, I guess that’s what Ash Wednesday is all about, isn’t it? To be graphic. The graphic cross of ash is the foil to the selfie. The cross, in fact, is a mark of the unselfie: the losing of self, the detachment from ego, the self-sacrifice. No, the cross is not masochistic. Masochism is still self-seeking. It is self-glorification photoshopped as suffering. The cross is not like that at all. The cross is all about the inescapable pain and suffering that you and I must be willing to be “uglified” by…if we are to love deeply and truly.
I remember the face of my mom when she was fighting for her breath in the ICU, three weeks before she died. I came straight from the airport to Davao Doctors Hospital the day after kuya called that mom was in bad shape. Her head was propped up on many pillows. Her hair was dishevelled. Her eyes half shut. Her skin, dry and ashen. She was not a pretty picture, my mom. She just looked very, very tired. “This is what loving does to mothers,” I thought. We were her reason to live, her children, in fact, her only reason to live. So for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, mom loved us the best she could. 77 years later, her deep and true love caught up with her heart. She never tired of loving. But she died of exhaustion. Ang mga magulang natin hindi namamatayan ng pag-ibig. Pero namamatay sila sa pagod.
That is the cross of the unselfie: the passion and willingness to love truly and deeply to ugliness, to exhaustion, and even to death—not for its own sake though, but so that people we love might live. And do you know why we humans are all capable of such great love—not just moms? Because there is a power within us that makes us so. The Spirit of the man who lived out that unselfie dwells deeply in all of our hearts. We can’t love like that on our own, sisters and brothers. Left to our own brute strength, we will easily choose to love ourselves more than anybody, prefer comfort over sacrifice, pay for love rather than love selflessly and pay the price. Thankfully, we are capable of the cross, because Christ changed the meaning of loving forever by embracing it. That’s the same Christ dwelling within all of us today. That’s why we find our deepest worth as loving people only when we give ourselves away…only when we give ourselves away.
This being Valentine’s Day, although it would be kind of cute, we are nevertheless forbidden to draw a heart on your forehead, instead of a cross. I’m sorry. But when we see the cross on each other’s forehead, I hope we remember that the heart that truly loves is really a cross that truly saves. And that ain’t all that ugly after all. In fact, it is even quite beautiful.
*photo from the National Catholic Register