You are dust and to dust you shall return. (Genesis 3:19)
As an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist at my Church, I always sign up each year to distribute ashes on Ash Wednesday. The process of putting ashes on the forehead of fellow parishioners is always a very humbling event for me and forces a reflection that can be both uncomfortable and encouraging.
The Human Contact
As opposed to administering communion, the placing of the ashes on one’s forehead is a much more interpersonal event. It may be because of the physical contact or the making of the cross with the ashes, but I sense a very personal connection. Many more parishioners seem to look me in the eye than they do receiving communion and for want of a better term, they appear more appreciative.
In reflecting on that human contact, it reminds me of past military and sports comradeship. It is a recognition that we all are in this together (in this respect we are all sinners) no matter what happens. None of us will escape death but we have some consolation that we are not alone in that human condition. All humans are part of this ultimate “band of brothers” experience. It reinforces that the Catholic Church is a “we” faith, not a “me” one.
Thinking of Our Death
The theme of Ash Wednesday is about thinking of our death which we don’t like to do. In repeating the words “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” to over 100 parishioners while distributing the ashes is a constant reminder of my own mortality. It is a humbling awareness that we are not in control of our own destiny and that all of us will suffer that final cross of death. It is also humbling to acknowledge that in the end, we are but ashes which helps to guard against pride. Lent is a season of repentance, renewal and personal reflection. It brings to mind the many family and friends that have died, especially over the last few years. The ashes are a reminder that my day will come as well.
Death is the end of earthly life. Our lives are measured by time, in the course of which we change, grow old and, as with all living beings on earth, death seems like the normal end of life. That aspect of death lends urgency to our lives: remembering our mortality helps us realize that we have only a limited time in which to bring our lives to fulfillment:
Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, . . . before the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. (CCC 1007, 1008)
The day to day experiences of a busy life from living and thinking about physical aches and pains, making decisions about work or worrying over our kids gives little time to contemplate death. It is a kind of rude awakening each year that Ash Wednesday forces one to think about our ultimate demise. While obsessing on it can be counterproductive, reflecting on one’s mortality is important as part of the Lenten journey and can set the stage for the end of that journey which is hope.
An Ultimate Hope
The thoughts that are brought on by Ash Wednesday are not always comfortable. However, thinking about our mortality is a needed process that sets the stage for understanding the total context of Lent. In recognizing where Ash Wednesday fits into the overall season of Lent, there is an awareness of hope with the anticipation of the coming Easter celebration. The hope of the resurrection is the culmination of Lent and Paul in Romans 15:13 expresses that hope:
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing,
so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope?