One of the paradoxes of life in liturgical Churches is the odd popularity of Ash Wednesday. People who resent the very idea of Holy Days of Obligation come in droves to the liturgy of Ash Wednesday, even though it is not a Holy Day. Indeed, they seem to come, almost because it is not a Holy Day. And I suspect that if the Church were to make it a Holy Day, people might be a bit less inclined to come, though I could be wrong.
There is something intensely attractive about Ash Wednesday and about the rite of Imposition of Ashes in particular. Something in our death-denying, youth-worshipping, Forever 21 culture that desires and even demands the reminder to “Remember O man, that thou art dust and to dust you will return.”
I feel it myself, certainly, and I am not at all certain I understand it. There is something about a hand reaching out, in the Name of Almighty God, and imposing the truth on me that is tonic.
Somebody, speaking with the authority of the One who oversaw the ancient tale of creation, of the formation of the very elements of my body in the heart of dying stars billions of years before our earth even existed, who patiently and providentially guided the endless eons of evolution until one night in November 1957 it pleased him to form the sinews of my being—somebody speaking with His authority puts his hand on my head and grinds some black dirt into my forehead to remind me that this whole fantastic palace of flesh is just a brief blip in the cosmic scheme of things and I will soon collapse with a sigh back into the soil and be forgotten by everyone but God.
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I need to hear that. It puts things in perspective. I need to remember that everything that seems so important right now is largely nothing. I don’t remember my paycheck ten years ago. I could not tell you what I was doing on September 23, 1977 (though if you’d stopped me on that day I could have freighted you with a ton of worries about things I could not now remember if you put a gun to my head).
But every single day of my life, my soul has hungered and thirsted for God even when—perhaps especially when—I did not know there was a God for whom I hungered and thirsted.
At the same time, I need to be reminded that everything is desperately important, that seemingly small choices in this seemingly brief life—like whether I give five bucks to Lazarus or just walk past while the dogs lick his sores—will spell the difference between heaven and hell for this body which, though dust, will nonetheless be glorified in the resurrection or suffer the pains of eternal loss of God.
I remember the first time I celebrated Ash Wednesday as a new Catholic. I lost my Dad in November 1983 and was received into the Church a little over four years later. Come Ash Wednesday 1988 I was still missing him. The ashes felt like his ashes: a reminder that the son will follow the father and that the death he had already passed through was part of the legacy he passed on to me.
It’s a truth of the Faith that original sin—that hole in our nature where God should be—is communicated to us from our parents down from our First Parents. We give our children death in the very act of giving them life and my parents were no different. The death my Dad endured is the death I will endure—the death Jesus endured–and that is what Ash Wednesday is all about.
And yet with Ash Wednesday does come something else. Scripture says, that for the joy set before him, Jesus endured the cross. Death is not our real end. It is, through the death of Jesus, turned into the means to the end: eternal joy. It has ceased to be a hole and become a door to the Resurrection.