In the world of millennial Catholics, there is no more highly anticipated annual hashtag than “#ashtag.” (Unless, of course, you have given up social media for Lent.) I live in a very Catholic city, so it isn’t considered strange to walk around town with a smudge of ashes on your forehead. It’s not unusual to have someone see your ashes and remark, “Oh, that’s right! It’s Ash Wednesday! I have to get to church later!”
Even the least religious of adults can admit their failings and need for improvement. Ash Wednesday and Lent isn’t such a huge logical leap for adults, and it’s much easier to explain why adult Catholics need this reminder.
What is harder to explain is why babies and children need those ashes, too. I remember my oldest daughter’s first Ash Wednesday, and the little smear of ashes on her baby head. Of course, I thought it was adorable, but I also remember being struck by the implications of those ashes. Did I really just assent to and publicly declare by that assent that my sweet baby girl was “dust and to dust” she would one day return?
That little baby is receiving First Communion this year, and she understands what Ash Wednesday is now. But seeing those ashes on her little forehead (and on the little foreheads of her four-year-old and seven-month-old little sisters) is still cause for pause. It’s moments like that when I am reminded that we Catholics really are a little bit counter-cultural. Everyone else gushes about how sweet and innocent babies are…but we acknowledge that our babies are stained by original sin and that they will spend their lives struggling with concupiscence (i.e. the propensity to sin). (Of course, we also believe that those same babies of ours are called to be great saints and one day experience perfect union with God in heaven, so there’s that.)
So how do we explain those ashes to our children? “Mommy and Daddy know you need that reminder that you are a sinner from the start.” Nope. “Mommy and Daddy want you to remember that one day you will die and turn into ashes and dirt.” Ummm…not quite. What do we say?
We begin by sharing with our children the story of Adam and his creation by God. God formed him from the clay of the earth, and so Adam is formed of dust and dirt. It isn’t until God breathes life into Adam that Adam becomes human, made in the image and likeness of God.
So, the origin of humanity is dust. Without God we are but dust.
This is what our bodies are destined for. We believe that, one day, Jesus will come again. When he does, he will raise our bodies up and glorify them, reuniting our souls (which can be in heaven prior to that) and our bodies.
But until then, when we die, and our bodies are buried, they will eventually become dust again — just like Adam was before God made him.
But why would we want to be reminded of that? Why would we want to remind our children of that? Doesn’t that sound morbid?
Before I explain that further, let me point you to an old trend in the Catholic world, one that has recently seen a resurgence (on social media, actually!) — the “Momento Mori,” loosely translated “reminder of death/mortality.” This age-old practice usually involves the placement of a skull somewhere – on one’s desk, etc. The idea is that, in acknowledging our mortality, there is a freedom. When we are free to face death, we are free to hope in the resurrection. We are free to say, “O death, where is your victory?!”
So, back to our children and their questions about ashes. Being reminded of our eventual death can seem scary, until we are reminded that Jesus has already conquered death. As we say in our family, “Jesus already defeated the scary things!”
So, we receive these ashes on our forehead to remind ourselves that we are but dust, and that it is God’s life in us that makes us more than dust and ashes. But we also remember that that means that we are little and weak. We are but dust, and we need God’s grace to free us from the ashes.
This is why we begin Lent with ashes, to remember who we are without God’s breath giving us life. On our own, we are but dust and ashes. We need God.
The ashes remind us that we need God’s grace, but they also remind us that one day we will die. However, given to us in the context of Lent, they remind us that death isn’t the end of the story. With God’s life in us, we don’t need to fear death. We can live in hope of the resurrection. First, there will be the resurrection of our souls, i.e. our souls can go to heaven (and purgatory, but that’s a can of worms for a different day). Then, one day, Jesus will come again and glorify our bodies. When he does this, body and soul will be reunited, and we will live forever.
(On a funny note, ever since losing our third child to miscarriage, my older daughters have been fascinated by the glorification of the body and it factors frequently into their conversation. Of special concern to my four-year-old is whether Jesus will let her have all her stuffed animals in heaven/at the glorification of the bodies. I may have studied theology, but I tell her there are some things we just can’t know.)
So, despite seeming morbid, those ashes really aren’t. They are a reminder of who we are without God, but they are also a reminder that we are not without God. As we turn from sin and embrace God’s gift of grace, we can begin to look forward – with hope! – to the resurrection.