“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” These are the traditional words with which the priest traces the ashes on the foreheads of the faithful on Ash Wednesday. But the Roman Missal gives the priest an option: he can say instead, “Repent and believe in the gospel.”
There are also two options on the blessing. The first blesses the faithful “that, as they follow the Lenten observances, they may be worthy to come with minds made pure to celebrate the Paschal Mystery of your Son.” The second, more traditional one blesses the ashes “that we, who acknowledge we are but ashes and shall return to dust, may … gain pardon for sins and newness of life after the likeness of your Risen Son.” The order in which the Missal gives the options is instructive, for the more traditional prayer and injunction are put in second place, almost (but not quite) as a grudging concession.
I don’t have a real problem with the injunction to repent and believe. Indeed, “Repent and believe the good news” was the cry of the first evangelists. But there is a reason for the Ash Wednesday rite, a reason the first prayer, with its un-spiritual concern for the purity of our minds, seemingly does not comprehend. Like the “resurrectifix” one sometimes finds at certain churches, its silence about our mortality treats sin and death as if the Resurrection made them unimportant, even irrelevant to the gospel narrative. But to deny or minimize death is not the same as to affirm life.
You are Going to Die
Of course, no one goes so far as to deny that death is a real thing. Death does happen … to other people. Well, yes, it will happen to us, too, sometime in the distant future, after we have become old and useless — a future that some scientists believe can be made very distant very soon. As for dying tomorrow in an auto accident, or being shot down in a mall by a mass murderer while shopping for Nikes, or catching some horrible, incurable disease like Ebola … well, the probability of Death catching us unawares like that seems to be vanishingly small, despite its omnipresence in the news.
I would love to say I never had that luxury. After all, I lost the notion that kids are exempt from death when I was in sixth grade — a classmate was abducted and murdered. (So long as I live, I will never lose that dreadful memory.) Since then, I have lost many friends and family to accidents, to illness, to suicide, and to age. Nevertheless, I too manage to put off contemplating my own mortality for months at a time, despite my progressing age, increasing medication, and decreasing flexibility.
But you are going to die, whether you think about it or not. The fact that we are living into our late seventies and early eighties is no guarantee that you will celebrate your next birthday in the material world. Stretch your life out as long as technology makes possible, and even there at the furthest reach of medicine, Death is still waiting for you. There is no shutting off the mortality gene. You are dust and to dust you shall return.
The Present Moment
This may strike many of you as unnecessarily morbid. Why dwell so much on death? But death is precisely the moment when all possibility for repentance and conversion is lost. Death is the moment we lose what small power we have to make our lives count for something. Today — right now — is when we make our choices and take action; the present moment is the only moment in which we can show charity and mercy to others, forgive each other, repent, convert our souls, and reach for sainthood. Death takes away all power to act and makes moot all our good intentions.
As Catholics, we rightfully stress God’s unlimited, unconditioned capacity to forgive our sins. But in stressing this, we too often downplay the fact that there is a limitation — the unpredictable, unknowable number of our days. The call to repentance should always carry with it a sense of urgency, for one of Murphy’s many laws is that we have less time than we think. The last minute may be many years away, or it may ambush us around the next corner. “In all thy works, remember thy last end, and thou shalt never sin” (Sirach 7:40 DRA). Remember that you are dust.
However, we have come to speak foolishly of death as a “transition”, as if it were of no greater moment than passing through a set of doors separating one room from another. In fact, it is not a mere skip of the record player needle but the moment when the music comes to a crashing, dissonant halt, the moment when all our pretensions and all our illusions are stripped away, the moment when king and pauper, man and woman, Christian and non-Christian stand equally humiliated in the bare nakedness of their souls. Our baptism, our faith, does not allow us to evade or minimize the full catastrophe of our deaths:
And your death is immanent and it is everything you deserve. Your death is ever on the horizon and it brings with it no hope. In your death you are defenseless for it is the suicide of a prideful will parading as liberation. Death is the existential claim of one’s right to one’s self. You die because you hate God. … Now go before the altar and contemplate its blood. (E. Twist, “You are going to die,” Catholic Phoenix)
The Precedence of the Cross
That is the reality of the cross. As the priest pours the water and wine into the chalice, he prays that we may “come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” That share could never have been full had not the material body of Christ been as mortal as ours, had not the Son of God been able to swallow the bitter dregs of death as humans do. The death of Christ on the Roman tree was as real as any other man’s death and more shameful than most; for it was a contemptuous brutality visited by Romans on lesser men than themselves.
“We are a resurrection people,” the saying goes, “and ‘Alleluia’ is our song!” But our symbol has never been the empty tomb or the abandoned burial cloths. The Crucifixion precedes the Resurrection, not only temporally but logically and causally. Without Good Friday there could be no Easter Sunday. It is into Christ’s death, not his resurrection, that we have been baptized (cf. Romans 6:3). And when we eat the bread and drink the cup, it is not Christ’s resurrection we proclaim but his death (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:26). The crucifix is at the center of the kerygma, the irreducible core of the Christian message, as St. John Paul II illustrated so well:
When … during the Pentecost event, Peter speaks of the sin of those who “have not believed” [cf. John 16:9] and have sent Jesus of Nazareth to an ignominious death, he bears witness to victory over sin: a victory achieved, in a certain sense, through the greatest sin that man could commit: the killing of Jesus, the Son of God, consubstantial with the Father! Similarly, the death of the Son of God conquers human death: “I will be your death, O death,” [Hosea 13:14; cf. 1 Corinthians 15:55] as the sin of having crucified the Son of God “conquers” human sin! … For the greatest sin on man’s part is matched, in the heart of the Redeemer, by the oblation of supreme love that conquers the evil of all the sins of man. (St. John Paul II, Dominum et Vivificantem 31.3)
Our hope is found in the Resurrection. But our salvation comes from Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. It was the cross that made possible the participation in Christ’s Body and Blood through the Eucharist (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:16), without which we have no life (cf. John 6:48-51). The crucifix shows us what John 3:16 means by saying that God “gave” his only Son, the same way mothers are said to have “given” their sons and daughters who have died serving their country. In this light, the “resurrectifix” is almost a symbolic heresy, and should not be seen in any Catholic church outside the Easter season.
You are Dust …
The point is not to live in fear of Death, for that is to live in fear of life. Rather, the point is to realize the opportunity purchased for us by Christ’s sacrifice. The point is to live in the recognition that now is the only time we have to repent and reform our lives, to order our priorities according to that recognition. Only when we give Death its full and proper immanence can we realize the immediacy of the Gospel message and begin to live it authentically — in a sense, to “live like we are dying”.
You are dust and to dust you shall return. We cannot look past the Passion to the Resurrection, just as we cannot go on to eternal life without first suffering material, temporal death. We cannot trivialize the death of God without trivializing the life of Man. Not only must we take up our own crosses (cf. Matthew 10:34-38, 16:24-25), we must each carry them to a personal Golgotha.
Take the ashes upon your forehead, then go do something merciful and loving with the now that you have been given. For it is the only time you have.