Living on the edge of the city of Glasgow, I had to take the bus into school - a Jesuit school situated in the centre of the city - every morning. Sometimes there were more people than bus and some of the crowd were less than polite in the struggle to find a place. One of the worse offenders was an oldish woman who had no qualms in pushing on with, to say the least, great vigour. I once missed the bus entirely because she managed to prise me out of the thick wedge of people back onto the ground. It wasn't easy trying to explain to my Jesuit teachers that I was late because "a big woman hit me with her umbrella".
In those days receiving ashes was so important that the churches would open as early as six in the morning so we could pick up our ashes before school or work. Children liked Ash Wednesday. What other day of the year do children get praised for having dirty faces? A chance too to vie for the biggest splodge of ash, and to go through endless contortions to keep the ashes on our forehead for as long as possible. We had enough piety, too, not to cheat by putting on our own ashes. Part of the fun was discovering who the other Catholics were. One Ash Wednesday, though, umbrella woman got on the bus, her forehead covered with the tell tale splodge. All the other Catholics looked at each other, and we all knew we were thinking the same thing. "Oh God", we thought, "she would have to be a Catholic."
It's a curious practice, this covering ourselves with a mark that shows who we are. It seems to be a blatant contradiction of today's Gospel, which tells us that we are not to parade our good deeds before men, and that we are to wash our face so no one will know we are fasting. On one day of the year, Catholics appear in our increasingly anonymous world, proclaiming their faith. Often enough in doing so we are parading our bad deeds rather than our good, but it still seems strange. Christian sacraments don't leave marks. You can't tell a baptised person from an unbaptised person by looking at them.
Yet it's only by accident that the ash proclaims our being Catholics. In an area where everyone was Catholic, the ash would be saying something else. But what exactly would it be saying?
What it says is quite simply that we are human beings. Far from proclaiming our differences to the world, it proclaims our solidarity with the world. We are dust and ash. We are made of fragile stuff, mortal beings. Long before modern scientific notions of entropy and the heat death of the universe, it was obvious to mediaeval thinkers that anything that is made up of materials will eventually lose its integrity. What comes together will come apart. We begin our Lent with that most basic of facts. Logically the ashes could be administered to anyone. We could say the words of the service, "Remember, Man, that you are dust and unto dust you shall return", to anyone. It doesn't need faith to understand those words. It doesn't need faith to know that they are true. They are true for all the world.
Ash Wednesday is only a beginning. Just as we fast because we are not ready to feast, or to acknowledge that we are not ready, so we begin our Lent by considering death, because we are not ready to live. We are not ready to live the life of Christ, at any rate. On Ash Wednesday, we consider human nature and the great distance between what that nature desires and what that nature is capable of achieving. Greater still is the distance between those aspirations and what God has prepared for us. As it is written, "Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor hath it entered into the heart of man, what things God hath prepared for them that love him.
We can't see the end then, what we are called to. We can see the beginning, where we are coming from. Perhaps it would be better, going back to Genesis and the creation of Adam, to say "Remember that you are soil", rather than dust. I think that's a legitimate translation of the Hebrew word. The soil may be where we return but it's where life comes from too.
One last thought. At my school, I learned enough Latin to know where the English word bus comes from. It's an abbreviation of the Latin word omnibus, which means "for all". That's not a bad image for Lent. Everyone is called to get on the same bus, and there's room enough for everyone. After all that's what the word means.