A few years ago, upon receiving my ashes I was quite startled to hear the priest’s words:
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
I had an immediate visceral reaction to these words. Wait…. What? No…!
I presume I had come to Mass that day to get into the somber, penitential spirit of Lent. But getting an in-your-face proclamation of my mortality was a bit more than I had bargained for.
I was still relatively new to the Church at the time, so I could have only heard these words a few times before. They still had a fresh sting to them. But I know lifelong Catholics who are also unsettled by these words. Apparently, getting told that you will one day rot in the ground is not something one gets used to.
And that seems by design: Lent stops us dead in our tracks in a way that other liturgical seasons do not. Because nothing gets your attention like someone drawing ashes on your forehead—as a symbol of your death, no less—in the shape of an instrument of lethal torture. So what is the message?
The words accompanying the rite of ashes should ring familiar to Catholics who know their Bibles. They are the contained in the curse of Genesis 3:19 that is visited upon Adam after the eating of the forbidden fruit. These words also allude back to the creation of man in Genesis 2:7,
Then the Lord God formed the man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
So, before we take the Fall into account, the ashes on our forehead remind us something about the human condition. Genesis 1:26-27 informs us that we are made in the image of God. This means that everything we have derives from Him. Without God we are dust. The ashes then, remind us that we are compound creatures: called up from the very dust to set our sights on the heavens. There is a noble humility to the original human condition.
Of course, in the Fall, all this went horribly awry. Rather than pursue what is eternal and invisible, Adam and Even became captivated by the temporal and visible. Rather than rising to their divine calling, the first man and woman sank back into the dust. They were then punished by means of their own sin—condemned to rest in the dust, that is to die and be buried in the ground.
The ashes, then, also remind us that we are sinners facing the punishment of eventual death.
But even in this message there is an undertone of hope. In the sentence of death, early Church commentators saw three aspects of God’s mercy at work. First, in limiting the term of life on earth, the extent of mankind’s sin was correspondingly curtailed. Second, this meant that there was also a limit to his suffering. But death was not immediate. It was postponed, this gave Adam and Eve and their descendants time to repent.
Ashes then came to also symbolize repentance. It’s how Job described his repentance after questioning God’s justice. “I disown what I have said, and repent in dust and ashes,” (Job 42:6). Likewise Nineveh after the preaching of Jonah: “When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes,” (Jonah 3:6).
In Psalm 22, a similar motif applies to the humble righteous pleading with God for salvation:
My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
Why so far from my call for help,
from my cries of anguish?
As dry as a potsherd is my throat;
my tongue cleaves to my palate;
you lay me in the dust of death.
All who sleep in the earth
will bow low before God;
All who have gone down into the dust
will kneel in homage
(verses 1, 16, 30).
This psalm points us forward to the New Testament, where the gospel accounts of the crucifixion repeatedly allude to it. In particular, the cry for water above is recapitulated in Christ thirsting on the cross (in John 19:28).
Ashes then at last bring us to the foot of the cross. As a sacramental, the ashes we receive encompass the whole sweep of Scripture, from Genesis to Jesus. In Jesus, the meaning of the ashes is recapitulated and reversed. Adam and Eve were condemned to dust as they departed from the tree of life. But now, through Jesus assuming on the dust of our mortal human nature, we are able to once more approach the tree of life.
It’s hard to imagine a better way to begin Lent than this rite that recalls our origins and destiny, reminds us of our sinful nature and the hope of salvation, and points us forward to the crucifixion, which is the culmination of Lent.
So next time we approach the altar to receive our ashes and hear those sobering words, may we respond in our hearts: Yes!