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Remembering We are Dust: Ash Wednesday

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Feb. 21, 2012

It is the most popular day for people attending Mass.  And it is not Easter or Christmas.  You will likely not leave the Church feeling so joyful or celebratory.  The day is Ash Wednesday—the shotgun start of the season of Lent.  Since time immemorial, Catholics have gathered to recite penitential psalms, confess, and brace themselves for a prolonged season of diligent spiritual formation founded on humility and sacrifice.  As a mark of one’s contrition, the day is most notably associated with the imposition of ashes on the forehead.

In the Ancient Church when the sacrament of reconciliation and penance was not offered in the same way or frequency as it is today, penitents within the Church were required to undergo more substantial acts of penance, which might include being turned out of the Church during Lent.  Like many biblical examples before them, when people had offended God they display similar signs of their deep sorrow: torn clothes, sackcloth, and ashes on their body.  Carrying on in the tradition of men like Job, the Prophet Jeremiah, and the Prophet Daniel, we still submit ourselves to God’s Will through repentance with the application of ashes. 

The ashes, while they assist us in our penance, do not effectuate grace, and, therefore, do not rehabilitate us on their own.  This is the difference between a sacrament (like the Eucharist) and a sacramental (like the ashes).  They do help point us toward inward conversion, however.  When the ashes are applied, one cannot help but recall their own mortality and immorality as the minister says, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return;” or, “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”  Further, the ashes are applied to the forehead in the shape of a cross.  The forehead is, arguably, the most public place on a person’s body.  It is the site where the holy oil of Confirmation is put—the sacrament that emboldens us toward our mission for Christ.  Not surprisingly, this day starts the forty days of Christ’s prayer and fasting in the desert as He, Himself, begins preparing for a mission—His ministry and His Passion.

Reminiscent of Christ’s journey through the desert, this day is marked by the same dedication to prayer, fasting, and abstinence.  Participating in the Ash Wednesday Mass disposes the person to undertake the same rigorous interior journey as Christ did; a journey peppered throughout with diabolical temptation.  Lent is not an easy time.  It is not supposed to be.  It is a moment for us all to truly take stock of ourselves, to evaluate: “Am I really giving my life to God?”  We have all fallen short of that standard.  The good news is, that despite past performance, today is a new day.  Today is Ash Wednesday: a day of humility and confession.  Avail yourself of the sacraments today.  Avail yourself of the sacraments throughout the Lenten season—you’ll need His grace to overcome the Devil’s uncompromising assault. 

This Ash Wednesday, consider the Socratic imperative: “Know thyself.”  Sit down with an examination of conscience, and really get to know thyself—and admit you are a sinner.  Then, say a decade of the Rosary pondering the Resurrection, asking the Blessed Mother to remind you of the virtue of Hope.  Make your resolutions with God for the Lenten season; go to confession, go to Mass, display your ashes humbly (not proudly).  Let them remind you that one day, you, too, will be mere ashes.  Remember you are dust—you will be dust.  But you don’t have to stay like that; indeed, eternal life awaits.  Encounter His Divine Mercy this Lenten season and hear Him as He lovingly calls out: “But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish…” (Luke 13:5).  Learn to reply, “Jesus, I trust in you.”

Download the Examination of Conscience Here.