A few yards from my cell in Santa Sabina in Rome is the cell formerly inhabited by Saint Pius V. Pope Pius, a Dominican friar who retained many of the habits of his Dominican way of life, used to spend his summers and periods of spiritual retreat amongst his brothers in this priory on the Aventine. One day the Polish Ambassador asked him for relics of the Roman martyrs. Pope Pius stooped down and picked up a handful of dust and poured it into the Ambassador's handkerchief saying, 'the dust of Rome is drenched in the blood of the martyrs; here is your relic.'
A seemingly insignificant and inconvenient earthly reality - and Rome is one of the dustiest cities I have ever lived in - is taken up into a higher realm. The martyrs' witness to Christ draws this humble substance up into the language of glory. Is not this what the Lord God did when he stooped down in his love and mercy and superabundant generosity and formed Adam out of the dust and clay? Are we not reminded of this when the priest stoops on Ash Wednesday and dabbles his fingers in the dust and ash to smear our faces and tells us that we must turn again, repent, consider that of which we are made? We are invited to remember what we are.
Many of us think we are not much, which is, of course, why we spend so much time pretending to be what we are not. Many of us think our lives are shaped like a Polo mint: there are a lot of margins but a great hole in the middle. Today, in this strange ritual, which is part child's game and partly a song of the earth, we all consider our call. We confess a certain readiness to take off the masks we wear in the performances of our daily lives to reveal the substance beneath.
In today's Gospel Jesus warns his disciples that they are not to be as the hypocrites. He uses a word which has its origins in the vocabulary of the theatre. Actors in the Greek and Roman theatre wore masks. Jesus is telling us we are not to be actors but are to perform our part in the play of the Gospel with unveiled faces. There is to be no difference between inside and outside. We must be true. When we allow our faces to be smeared with dust and ashes we are in a sense turning our lives inside out. What is underneath, what is beneath, is brought to the surface.
We invite the Lord once more, as he did on that sixth day, to form the dust and ashes of our lives into humble vessels of his glory. In the Incarnation the Lord has hallowed the dust of our humanity with his own blood.
On the first day of Lent we are reminded that we are dust but that is not all we are. We were not created to be dust but to be fire. In some ways Lent is like a film run backwards. Normally, ashes are what remain when a fire burns out. Lent begins with ashes and ends with the fire, the paschal fire of the resurrection, the assurance of what we shall be.
As we make our way through the penitential season of Lent we clear the debris of our lives, symbolised by the small sacrifices that we make, in order to allow the mercy of God to fall upon us.
Many people today say that there is no realisation of sin anymore and that penitential seasons make no sense. It seems to me that we are in a much more dangerous state: there is a strong sense of sin but not much hope of forgiveness. Many feel that they cannot be forgiven. They rest content with the dust, and fear to approach the light of the fire; but the dust of our lives is drenched in the precious blood of Christ which is the assurance of forgiveness.
So, if we are concerned about what we might give up or sacrifice this Lent maybe we should try to give up the spirit of pretence and allow ourselves to be fashioned into instruments of forgiveness. We should remember that we are dust but that is not all we are. We were created to be fire.