Diocese of Orlu in Nigeria,
Associate Editor of the Nigerian Journal of Theology (NJT)
“Remember man that you are dust, and unto dust you will return.”
With Ash Wednesday the Church begins the 40 days trip towards Easter; a Feast that celebrates the triumph of life over death, the victory of righteousness over sin and failure. It is good that we bear this in mind in our penance and penitence all through the next forty days. Lent is not a time of austerity for austerity sake. No! Lent is a build-up to a celebration of our faith-conviction that death and sin have not the final say over us and over lives. As Christians, we are an Easter People and an Easter Community. And our lives ought to be reflect this in all of its various facets and dimension.
Today, more important than the readings – important though these are – is the symbolism of the Ash that is spread over our foreheads. And it is on this symbolism that this short reflection is based.
The distribution of ashes comes from a ceremony of ages past. Christians who had committed grave faults performed public penance. On Ash Wednesday, the Bishop blessed the hair shirts which they were to wear during the forty days of penance, and sprinkled over them ashes made from the palms from the previous year. Then, while the faithful recited the Seven Penitential Psalms, the penitents were turned out of the church because of their sins — just as Adam, the first man, was turned out of Paradise because of his disobedience. The penitents did not enter the church again until Maundy Thursday after having won reconciliation by the toil of forty days’ penance and sacramental absolution. With time, all Christians received ashes as a sign of devotion; and the distribution of ashes was followed by a penitential procession.
“Remember man that you are dust, and unto dust you will return.” These or similar words are usually the words spoken over us as we come forward to receive the ash on our foreheads. But how should we understand these words and the accompanying action? The theologian von Balthasar once remarked that all reality could be interpreted from a double perspective: from a factual perspective and from the perspective of mystery; and this also applies to the symbolism of ash that gives today its name.
Seen from the factual perspective, ash symbolises the mortal dimension of our human existence. It is intended to remind us of the transient and transitory nature of all earthly reality, our own very selves not excluded. We are from dust and must return to dust. As a new Pope processes to St. Peter’s Basilica to offer his first Mass as Pope, a common tradition is to have the procession stop three times, and at each stop, a piece of flax mounted on a reed is burned. As the flames die, the Pope hears the words, “Pater sancte, sic transit gloria mundi” (“Holy Father, thus passes the glory of the world”). This is usually done with the intention of reminding the new pope not only that he is a mere man, but that as a mere mortal his end will also be like the end of all others of his breed. The things of this world are transient, and as Christians we must always keep one eye on the world to come. Recalling this Truth is one of the principles behind the use of ashes on the forehead today: to remind us that we are mortal, subject to the rot and decay our modern culture now desperately tries to euphemize away.
Do we really need to be reminded of this? Have we not in our own life-time had experiences that reveals to us the futility of all human achievements, experiences where we wake up in a day to discover that all that we have labored for years and days past have come to nothing thanks to human wickedness or even wicked natural forces? One recalls here the 11th of September 2001 – strange to know that a decade has already gone – or such natural catastrophe like Katharina or the Tsunami that ravaged and reduced to nothing entire landscapes, and with them all the works of human hands? Confronted with the stark reality of such natural and human made evils, we instantaneously begin to ponder on, and readily admit the nothingness of all earthly glories. But it is our common human folly that such moment of deep reflection is always and immediately followed by a period of mental Artzeima. While they force us to readily admit that we are dust, it does not take time before such momentary grasping of the futility of all our endeavours are forgotten and we gradually return to the normal routines of our daily lives, with its many scheming and struggling for influence and affluence, with its occasional competitions to rise and shine at the expense of others, competitions that sometimes involve conscious attempts to destroy our rivals, to deny our brothers and sisters and even to betray our friends.
So at least from that point of view it makes sense that the Church should ritualise our nothingness in the Ash Wednesday liturgy, less it be forgotten. In the midst of all the hypocrisy and masquerading that we see day in day out around us; in the midst of all the hypocrisy and masquerading that we ourselves champion and promote, Ash Wednesday reminds us that no matter how we strive to make things appear: nothing is perfect, all has their faults: not even ourselves and our systems, not even our own pattern of life or principles, our so-called priorities, our possessions, positions and relationships; and this irrespective of how we attempt to conceal their defective sides from coming into the open. Ash Wednesday also reminds us that nothing in this world has an enduring value; nothing lasts forever; all will eventually fade away. The ashes are sort of a yearly contemplation of this inscription found in an anonymous tombstone:
Remember friends as you pass by,
As you are now so once was I.
As I am now so you must be.
Prepare for death and follow me.
But reminding us of the scary and scaring reality of the futility and nothingness of the works of human hands is not the only reason for today and for the symbolism of the Ash. Seen from the perspective of mystery, from the perspective of God, the ash is the mud, the material from which God fashioned humanity in his own image and likeness; and out of which he re-created humanity anew in the image and likeness of His Son from death to new life. Seen from the perspective of God therefore, the ash is the material for that which God intends to fashion us into, if only we should allow him to do with us what he wills. In this sense, Ash Wednesday offers us a basic reassurance: whoever is ready and willing to receive the ash on his forehead, he or she will be empowered to surrender his/her life with all its imperfections, failures and mistakes unto the direction of God the Father, the Son and the Spirit. He or she receives from the Triune God the assurance that s/he is accepted and welcomed, even with all his/her limitations and all his/her fragility. The ash on our forehead encourages us to drop all the daily masks that we carry about; and to come to God just as we are. The ash that we receive on our foreheads today says to us: “No matter how your own masks and external disguises look, do not take appearances (your own as well as those of others) as very important: after all, all of you are but dusts, mortal, fragile and transient; and without God you are nothing and cannot do anything. More important than the look of your mask and disguise is the realisation of the fact that God loves you, that he is willing to give you Life, and life in its fullness.”
While the ashes symbolize penance and contrition, they are also a reminder that God is gracious and merciful to those who call on Him with repentant hearts. Ash Wednesday, therefore, offers us a new chance and a new opportunity to strive to claim this life that God is and freely gives. With the sign of the ash on our foreheads we profess our readiness to confront our past failures and mistakes; as well as our readiness to dare a new beginning.
Today’s Gospel points to three directions in which we can do this: alms-giving, prayer and fasting; the traditional acts identified with the Lenten Season. Notice however the spin that Jesus gives to these practices. If we should embark upon them still in the mentality of masquerading and hypocrisy; if we should embark upon them just with the intention of letting others know that we are better than them or even with the intention of making others look dustier than ourselves; then it makes no sense to do them at all: for even with them we all are still dust and will return to dust. But should we embark upon them with the intention of seeing in them ways and means through which God will continue working something out of the material dust and ash that we are, then we would be surprised what Good He is able to wrought with us and through us this Lent; we would be surprised to see how he will transform us from the death of sin, hypocrisy and pretence to the life of Easter Resurrection. God’s mercy is of utmost importance during the season of Lent, and the Church calls on us to seek that mercy during the entire season with prayer, penance and almsgiving. And it is in this sense that I wish all of us a grace-filled Season of Lent.