Words on the Word
Joel 2:12-18: Between vestibule and altar, let the priests lament.
2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2: Be reconciled to God!
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18: Your Father sees all that is done in secret.
For Western Christians, the imposition of ashes has been linked to this day since the eighth century. The rite has come to define the beginning of Lent. Other celebrations connected with Easter carry different names in different languages, reflecting local perceptions. ‘Lent’ is itself an example. The English word, evoking the lengthening of days in spring, conveys the longing born of British winter gloom. Northern Europeans call the season ‘Fast’. For them, the chief reference is ascetic. Romance languages use variations on Quaresima, Latin for ‘forty’, which speaks of the finality of Lent, of what it points towards. Ash Wednesday, meanwhile, is ‘Ash Wednesday’ to everyone. What is the meaning of the ashes that, today, leave their mark on us?
The Missal offers two alternative formulas for the rite of imposition. The first reads, ‘Repent, and believe the Gospel!’ Repent! Review your life! Sharpen your focus! Such was the injunction with which Jesus began his mission. Today he utters it afresh. He asks us to shake off indolence, to recover our Christian purpose. In this perspective, our ashes display penitence for past betrayals, like the ashes in which the king of Ninive sat when he heard God’s judgement, ordering his subjects, and their cows, to put on sackcloth. By this outward sign of remorse, we humble ourselves. We consent to looking a bit ridiculous, in recognition of the foolishness of our wrong choices. The ashes proclaim that, with God’s help, we wish to see ourselves as we are in truth, without pretence, to give ourselves up wholeheartedly to the labour of conversion.
The second formula offered by the Missal has a different tonality. Its message is: ‘Remember, you are dust, to dust you shall return’. According to a legend that attaches to our Order, the monks of La Trappe used to greet one another saying, ‘Remember, brother, you will die’. They never did, of course; though the reminder as such is thoroughly Benedictine. To ‘keep death daily before one’s eyes’ is the forty-sixth of St Benedict’s 72 tools for good living. Today we apply it to each other, not in the hush of some lugubrious cloister, but in the clear light of day, before the altar from which the Bread of Life is given us. Remember, you are dust. Remember, you will die. It is a message our times are reluctant to hear. Our world is terrified of death. Death is the one human reality technical prowess cannot domesticate, though determined efforts are made, as in Belgium recently, to render it a matter of choice, not a gift or a guest come from another. There is therefore a great need, now, for our Christian testimony.
Affirming our mortality, we embrace our limitation. We own that, despite occasional lapses of delusion, we know we are not God. In the ancient and medieval world, before the invention of synthetic stuff, ashes were the deadest thing to hand. Ashes bear the memory of fire, and show that the fire has died; from them, it cannot be rekindled. By our ‘Amen’ to ashes we profess that, yes, we know we shall die, that we carry upon us, within us, the mark of death; that we cannot, of ourselves, satisfy that wild, crazy yearning of ours to live forever. Only God can make that wish come true. And he will. He does. That is what we recall above all in this season of grace. Throughout it, we bathe in God’s mercy. Lent is, as the Preface of the Mass proclaims, a season, not of mourning, but of joy. It is a time to rediscover gratitude. For to ‘remember that you are dust’ is to remember that God is God, a ‘God all tenderness and compassion’, a God who makes flames rise out of ashes, who forgives sin and heals sickness, who causes the dead to rise. If that is not cause for joy, a joy worth striving for, worth our ‘Christian warfare’, I don’t know what is.