Thursday, March 02, 2017

Belated thoughts on Ash Wednesday.

Yesterday morning I concelebrated the Ash Wednesday Mass at Gonzaga College High School, the Jesuit boys' high school in Washington, D.C. As a procession of young men in blazers and ties came forward, I traced an ashen cross on each one's forehead and repeated the ancient formula: Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return. This memento mori always strikes me as poignant and sobering, but it seemed all the more such today as I addressed it to a succession of teenagers for whom death and judgment are hopefully very far away.

I've written before about Ash Wednesday as a sign of contradiction challenging a culture that seeks to deny the reality of death, and it is no accident that Lent should begin with words and gestures that remind us of our frailty and limitation. The recognition of our own mortality should prompt us to think about how we live and what we make of the time that we have been given. The formula that traditionally accompanies the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday also serves to trace a direct line between our own actions and lives and those of our first parents; the words that we hear are those with which God cast Adam and Eve out of Paradise in the Book of Genesis: "Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return" (Gen 3:19).

In recent decades, the traditional "remember that you are dust" formula has perhaps not been heard in many churches, as the more recent editions of the Roman Missal suggest the substitution of another set of words: "Repent and believe in the Gospel." These words are taken from Mark's Gospel, forming part of Jesus' preaching in Galilee after the arrest of John the Baptist (Mk 1:15). Though both formulas are taken from scripture, I think that they do different things in the context of the Ash Wednesday liturgy. The 'modern' formula taken from Mark is rather didactic, telling us exactly what we should do during Lent. The older formula from Genesis does not tell us what to do, but instead poetically addresses an existential dilemma that affects us all. I prefer the poetic approach, so on Ash Wednesday I always say, "Remember that you are dust..."

My prayers and good wishes are with all who mark this penitential season. Conscious of our own sins and shortcomings and our need for God's mercy and pardon, may we profit from this opportunity to grow closer to the One who calls us to Himself. AMDG.


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