It happens to me every year. On Ash Wednesday someone opens his mouth and stretches out his tongue at the very moment I am about to place ashes on his forehead! He is looking to me for the Lord Jesus in Holy Communion. Instead, I smear dirty ashes on his brow!
What is going on? Ashes certainly do nothing to beautify our appearance. However, there is a religious tradition that associates ashes with mourning over death and with repentance for sin. According to the Gospel of today Jesus warned against the misuse of outward expressions of piety parading good deeds in the streets to gain the admiration of others.
When distributing ashes I find myself in something of a dilemma. I have to choose between two formulae each of which carries a powerful message. The more familiar one is
Remember, man, you are dust
And to dust you shall return.
This reminder of our mortality is always sobering, differently for those of us who are advanced in years and for the young mother who carries a babe in her arms. It is also good to remember that our dust has been made sacred because it has received the creative breath of God himself. Consequently, being human has always meant our being made in his image and likeness.
What is yet more marvelous is that the Son of God, in becoming man, has clothed himself in this our dust-prone human nature. Born of the Virgin Mary, Jesus suffered and died. Entombed in the dust of the earth, he did not become part of the dust. On the third day he rose from the dead and in so doing he defied the finality of 'to dust you shall return'.
The Good News of the Gospel is that although in death we shall return to dust, through Jesus the dust that is ourselves will be raised to share in the glory of his resurrection.
Christ has been raised from the dead, as the first- fruits of all who have fallen asleep in Christ all will be brought to life; but all of them in their proper order; Christ the first-fruits, and next, at his coming those who belong to him. (1 Cor. 15.20)
Thus the Church carries us from a realistic acceptance of our sorry condition 'you are dust' to the joyful celebration of our faith in Jesus:
Dying you destroyed our death,
rising you restored our life.
Lord Jesus, come in glory
The alternative formula for the distribution of ashes reminds us that a living Christianity requires of us repentance and fidelity.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.
It doesn't come easily for us to repent of those things that at some time have caused us joy, brought us success and may even have defined our life-style. At the time they all seemed so good for us. Perhaps we may come round to having regrets, even bitter ones, because we are ashamed at being found out or afraid of being punished.
It is the grace of God that brings us to see those once appealing deeds as now dust-like in their ugly lifelessness -- precisely because at last they are recognized as having offended the God whom we love. In repentance we yearn to be reconciled with God and we resolve to be more faithful to him. The Good News is that all this is possible because of Jesus.
Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, during which our minds and hearts are prepared for the celebration of the Paschal Mystery accomplished by Jesus on the Cross and from the Tomb. Ashes on the forehead in the form of a cross express the Christian conviction that the eventual resurrection of our bodies and God's loving forgiveness of our sins derive from our crucified and risen Lord Jesus. Our repentance makes us open to this.
Lord, by your cross and resurrection
you have set us free.
You are the Saviour of world.
For us, then, the ultimate intimacy with God here on earth is to receive, not ashes, but Jesus, the Son of God made man, in Holy Communion.