Ash Wednesday as a sign of contradiction.
"Remember, man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return." This is the formula traditionally recited by the priest as he imposes ashes on the foreheads of the faithful as part of the Roman Catholic liturgy for Ash Wednesday. I love these words, which so eloquently express a dilemma that lies at the heart of human experience: we all know that we will die, and our response to that knowledge determines how we live our lives. Though we may want to try to ignore or resist our mortality, our awareness of the fragility and impermanence of our earthly existence can serve to spark within us a creative striving for transcendence; we can find evidence of this striving in the work of great artists and writers, but we need not look that far: even in small daily acts of love and generosity, we can discover signs of the human desire to bear witness to things greater than death.
Remember, man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return. As I noted above, these are bracing words, and as such they should catch our attention. The symbolic act that accompanies these words should likewise draw attention: it’s hard not to notice that someone has ashes smudged on his or her forehead, even if one chooses not to comment on that fact. Churchgoers stand out on Ash Wednesday – even if, as is not infrequently the case, this is one of the few days on which the ash-smudged Christians in question actually go to church.
Though many will be seen with ashes today, the length of time that each individual goes about with ashes on his or her forehead varies considerably. Having received ashes at Mass, some bear them for the remainder of the day, while others wash them off as soon as they can. As a child, I took the first approach to be normative – that is, I got the impression that the ashes should be 'kept on' as long as possible – and I still instinctively treat that as the 'correct' approach, even though I haven’t always followed it. Then again, I know some who argue that washing off one’s ashes as soon as possible is the better approach. A friend who does this cites Matthew 6:17-18: ". . . when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret . . ."
I disagree with my friend's position, for at least two reasons. First, the citation to Matthew's Gospel seems to imply that wearing ashes is a kind of spiritual gloating, a way of showing oneself as exceptionally devout, but I doubt that many people who wear ashes today actually feel that way; if anything, the wearing of ashes is a sign of unfeigned humility, an explicit recognition that one is a sinner in need of God's mercy. Second - and perhaps more substantively - it strikes me that the wearing of ashes today is a necessary sign of contradiction, a reminder to ourselves and to others of the perennial tension that exists between the values of the Gospel and the values of the world. At a time when the place of the Church in the public square is so regularly questioned and even attacked, such signs of contradiction become all the more important.
Returning to the words that began this post, perhaps we can find another sign of contradiction in the admonition that most particularly characterizes Ash Wednesday: Remember, man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return. These words offer a challenge to the values of a culture that often fails to recognize and respect human frailty and limitation, a challenge that reminds Christians who we truly are as human beings and - perhaps paradoxically - exhorts us to be courageous in living out the call that we received at baptism. As we begin our Lenten journey, may we answer the call with joy. AMDG.