One of the most renowned architects ever, he created one of America's greatest engineering wonders, a structure that became a symbol of the country's economic vitality. It would soar 110 stories above the ground, reaching 1,353 feet into the sky. From its observation decks, it was possible to see 45 miles in every direction. It housed close to 10 million square feet of working space, enough to comfortably accommodate 50,000 people.

Yamasaki's creation was inaugurated in New York City on April 4, 1973. From this point on, it was internationally known as the World Trade Center. Yamasaki insisted that the World Trade Center “should, because of its importance, become a representation of man's belief in humanity, his need for individual dignity, his belief in the cooperation of men and, through cooperation, his ability to find greatness.”

Some things were made to last forever. For many, the World Trade Center fell into this category — until Sept. 11, 2001.

The world saw the massive Twin Towers crumble into a heap of ash and soot that covered everything in lower Manhattan. Time magazine was the first to call Sept. 11 “Ash Tuesday.” The term fits the description of what happened. Everything around where the World Trade Center once stood seemed to be reduced to dust.

It is interesting that the creative editors at the national newsweekly played off Ash Wednesday, the day that marks the beginning of Lent in preparation for Easter. On this day, the priest traces on our foreheads the sign of the cross with ashes and says: “Remember, man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” Why does the Church smear ashes on our foreheads to begin Lent?

It's God's reminder of what we are. He makes this point rather emphatically in Scripture. “For out of the earth you were taken; you are dust and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). In the Psalter we read: “For [God] knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14). The book of Ecclesiastes says nearly the same: “All are from the dust and all turn to dust again” (3:20). How can we boast about who we are or what we may have if we are only dust?

Dust is an image of the commonplace. There is always too much of it. One speck of it is as good as the next. There's nothing special about it. Our humble origin keeps us in check. We are dust. How could we ever brag about anything?

There's another reason for having our foreheads marked with ash, and many of us don't like this one: It's God's way of reminding us that we are sinners. Ash symbolizes our moral weakness. Dust or ash is easily stirred up, blown about, and stepped on. Our sins blow us, like dust or ash, in all directions except the right one — toward God. At the same time, our ashes mean repentance.

It's way of saying to God and neighbor, “I'm sorry.” Ash Wednesday sets a clear agenda on how to live the 40 days of Lent as penitents.

A good penitent nourishes his prayer with fasting. The idea of fasting scares many people — especially Americans. It shouldn't. St. Augustine, who had such a turbulent youth, saw fasting as a bitter, yet sweet, medicine: “No one can doubt … that fasting is profitable; for when a man imposes on himself the burden of fasting, he shows that he really wants what he is asking for,” he wrote. “That is why it is that ‘prayer is good when accompanied by fasting.’” However, some would argue that fasting is beyond the possibility of many because of the physical intensity of their work or lifestyle.

Is there any way to gain the spiritual benefits of fasting without eating less? St. John Chrysostom says Yes. How? “By enjoying food while having no taste for sin. This is a far better kind of fasting, and easier as well.” We can all do this type of fasting.

A good penitent always joins his prayer and fasting to almsgiving. Almsgiving is more than writing a check for the needy.

It requires us to practice fraternal charity by forgiving others and rooting out any form of hatred in our hearts. Almsgiving proves our charity is real by works of mercy.

Ash Wednesday sets a tough agenda for Lent — no doubt about that. But the benefits outweigh the sacrifices when we think of our future reward: The Resurrection.

A good penitent prays. Prayer is the most important activity of Lent. If our prayer life has been slipping lately because of our job, our responsibilities at home, or any other activities, Lent is the perfect time to rededicate ourselves to spending time with God. Look for a place to be alone with God.

Meditate often on the eternal truths: death and judgment, heaven and hell. Ask for help discerning whether or not your life is headed in the right direction. If you're on the right road, stay on it. If you have taken a bad turn, change directions today. Don't wait. Now is the time of salvation.

This is the message of Ash Tuesday. It's also the message of Lent.

Legionary Father Andrew McNair teaches at Mater Ecclesiae International Center of Studies in Greenville, Rhode Island.