Remember: You Are Dust, and to Dust You Shall Return

‘The Ash Wednesday liturgy indicates the fundamental dimension of Lent in the conversion of the heart to God.’ —Pope Benedict XVI

Andrea Vaccaro, (1604-1670), “Jonah Preaching in Nineveh”
Andrea Vaccaro, (1604-1670), “Jonah Preaching in Nineveh” (photo: Public Domain)

“Then the Lord God took some soil from the ground and formed a man out of it; he breathed life-giving breath into his nostrils and the man began to live.” (Genesis 2:7)

“You will have to work hard and sweat to make the soil produce anything, until you go back to the soil from which you were formed. You were made from soil and you will become soil again.” (Genesis 3:19)

I can imagine that the sight of millions of people pouring out of churches around the world at the beginning of Lent each year with black smudged crosses on their foreheads might be a bit disconcerting to non-Catholics. In some cases, it betrays the bigots among us such as Ted Turner who once commented that those so “en-ashed” were “Jesus freaks.

The ashes are a reminder of our mortality and our sinful nature, so it is apt that Ash Wednesday kicks off this Lenten season we’re currently observing. Several Scriptural passages attest to this ancient symbolism of ashes among the Jews:

  • “So I am ashamed of all I have said and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:6)
  • “When Mordecai learned of all that had been done, he tore his clothes in anguish. Then he dressed in sackcloth, covered his head with ashes and walked through the city, wailing loudly and bitterly.” (Esther 4:1)
  • “When you fast, you make yourselves suffer; you bow your heads low like a blade of grass and spread out sackcloth and ashes to lie on. Is that what you call fasting? Do you think I will be pleased with that?” (Isaiah 58:5)
  • “They all mourn bitterly for you, throwing dust on their heads and rolling in ashes.” (Ezekiel 27:30) 
  • “And I prayed earnestly to the Lord God, pleading with him, fasting, wearing sackcloth and sitting in ashes.” (Daniel 9:3)

To Jonah’s surprise, and great irritation, the king of Nineveh took to heart the warning the prophet gave him: “He got up from his throne, took off his robe, put on sackcloth and sat down in ashes” (Jonah 3:6). The New Testament makes the same reference:

“The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a burnt calf are sprinkled on the people who are ritually unclean and this purifies them by taking away their ritual impurity.” (Hebrews 9:13)

Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are observed by penance, prayer, fasting and abstinence from meat. Further, we do not eat meat on the Fridays of Lent. Considering that Christ ate nothing at all for 40 days in the desert, we actually have it quite easy.

God offers us his undying and relentless love despite our sinfulness. If not, our religion is less than worthless. With forgiveness comes life as Paul reminds the Corinthians:

Here we are, then, speaking for Christ, as though God himself were making his appeal through us. We plead on Christ’s behalf: let God change you from enemies into his friends! Christ was without sin, but for our sake God made him share our sin in order that in union with him we might share the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:20-21)

To convert and repent is to live eternally. One becomes immortal or, more accurately, one recognizes one’s souls’ immortality and, in this realization, one comes to Christ’s joy in this world — a pale reflection of the joy that awaits us when we die and are in his presence. Lent isn’t the drab and dour season some would have us believe. Instead, the Church calls us to joyfully celebrate this time and to come to a fuller, more loving and more mature relationship with the Lover who called us into existence and into his love and a more perfect reality.