Ashes to Ashes

“Remember, man, you are dust, and to dust you will return.”

Millions of Christians throughout the world will hear those words today, as a sooty cross is thumbed on their foreheads.

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Ash Wednesday is an interesting ceremony. It is not at all obligatory like the sacraments of baptism or Sunday Mass. Unlike Holy Communion, you do not have to be in a state of grace to receive the ashes. You do not have to be a certain age. You do not even have to be a Christian.

And so the people flock to the churches.

I have always been amazed to see so many people at this service, many of whom I never see at Mass. On Easter there are also many non-regulars in attendance, but it’s not the same. Easter is a big secular as well as religious holiday, and folks are usually celebrating with family. On Ash Wednesday, it’s just the middle of the week and people actually miss their lunch break to come get their ashes. There is no holiday ham or chocolate Easter bunny waiting for them after the service.

The ashes are made from the branches of the palms used on Passion Sunday the prior year. When the time comes to distribute them, everyone in the church seems to surge forward. It’s orderly, but everyone wants their ashes: children and the aged with their canes, farm workers and growers, teenagers in unlikely tee-shirts, ex-cons and judges, and even newborns in the arms of their mothers. All humbly approach the altar with the equality of sinners.

It is an inspiring and intriguing sight.

What is it about having ashes placed on your forehead and hearing the haunting words “to dust you will return”?

Perhaps, it is a yearly encounter with eternity.

For a few moments, we stop our busy lives and, along with a motley mass of humanity, come to grips with our mortality.

And we are not alone. Ash Wednesday is a communal event, so it’s not lonely, like the times in the middle of the night when you’re afraid for no good reason, and you think it’s all hopeless.

There is some comfort in contemplating your mortality with your brethren. Together with them, you listen to Psalm 90: “Our span is seventy years or eighty for those who are strong. And most of these are emptiness and pain. They pass swiftly and we are gone.”

You think about that and look at the poor Joe sitting next to you and know that he’s in exactly the same boat as yourself. Misery loves company. And you look at the woman you can’t stand a few rows ahead and you figure if God could love someone like that and die to save her, well, maybe you have a chance, too.

Ash Wednesday commences the beginning of the season of Lent, the six weeks of preparation for the remembrance of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice for humanity culminating in His triumph, the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. Traditionally, Christians seek to imitate Christ in His sufferings by doing special penances during this season.

In times gone by, penances were often great and, to the modern mind, excessive.

Yet we have become so attached to our comfort that the most modest of penances, not eating meat on Friday, often seems a trial. The children think it a great inconvenience to have to settle for a cheese pizza. Then there is the wife who decides, “Oh dear, I guess we’ll have to have lobster tonight.” I have often found myself thinking, “Well, it is a penance that I even have to think about what I can and cannot eat tonight.”

Penances should be thoughtfully chosen and meaningful, like giving up a few restaurant meals a week and donating the saved money to a soup kitchen or giving up the Internet for six weeks and having more family nights. But I often fall by the wayside and just do my standard, no cakes, cookies or candy for six weeks and hope I lose a little weight in the bargain, which I never do.

I take a little comfort in the prophetic words of a saint who lived at least hundred years ago: “In the future, people will no longer be able to do great works of penance. Just living will be penance enough.” And when I turn on the nightly news, or open the morning paper, I often find his prophecy true enough.

Whether the penance is voluntary or imposed by life circumstance, it does help us prepare for the rejoicing of Easter Sunday. By experiencing our mortality, we learn that we, like our Savior, must pass through death.

On a monastery in Italy is carved the words, “The darker the night, the more brightly shine the stars.” Ash Wednesday is the yearly entrance to that dark night of Lent and it prepares us for the brightness of Easter.

In more recent years, the ministers are allowed the option of placing the ashes on the penitent with the phrase, “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel” (Mk 1:15). This is a noble phrase, indeed. But I think that most of us who receive the ashes will be thinking of the words that have reverberated through the centuries. We will think of dust.

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