Wednesday, 5 March 2014


What a temptation! And this at a most sacred and sober moment! On Ash Wednesday of all days, at the very moment of distributing the ashes! It is then that the person before me opens his or her mouth, as I reach forwards with a thick layer of ashes on my thumb…ashes to consumed?!? Surely not! Dirty ashes to be smeared on the forehead…not the Lord Jesus to be con...sumed in Holy Communion. I leave you to speculate how I’ve handled this situation on more than one occasion.
Suffice it to say that ashes do nothing to beautify our appearance. They’re not meant to. In a tradition dating back to Saint Gregory the Great, pope in the sixth century, ashes have been distributed at the commencement of the season of Lent. During this time we are to reflect on the certainty of our dying, sooner or later, and we are to repent of our sins. With the grace of God we could conjure up these sombre sentiments without our having to be daubed with ashes. Indeed, we hear from the Gospel of today that Jesus warned against the misuse of outward expressions of piety … parading good deeds in the streets to gain the admiration of others. The public distribution of ashes is meant to remind us that we, as the People of God in our very togetherness, have a fragile hold on life and that we need to repent of our collective sinfulness.
When distributing ashes I find myself in something of a dilemma. I have to choose between two formulae each of which carries a powerful message. The more familiar one is,
"Remember, man, you are dust
And to dust you shall return."
“Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return” reverberates with one tone in the ears of those of us of advanced years; with a completely different tone when heard by a young mother cradling an infant in her arms. And yet I feel good when I remember that the dust which is me has been made sacred because it has received the creative breath of God himself. I’m deeply moved by the thought that my being human means that I, yes I, am made in the image and likeness of God Himself. So much more marvellous is it that the Son of God, in becoming man, has clothed Himself in this, my dust-prone human nature and…yours…and yours…and yours!
Born of the Virgin Mary, Jesus suffered and died. Entombed in the dust of the earth, He did not become part of the dust. On the third day He rose from the dead and in so doing He defied the finality of "to dust you shall return." The Good News of the Gospel is that although in death every single one of us shall return to dust, through Jesus the dust that is ourselves will be raised to share in the glory of His resurrection.
“Christ has been raised from the dead, as the first- fruits of all who have fallen asleep… in Christ all will be brought to life; but all of them in their proper order; Christ the first-fruits, and next, at his coming those who belong to him,” [1 Cor. 15.20]
Thus the Church carries us from a realistic acceptance of our sorry condition, “you art dust” to the joyful celebration of our faith in Jesus,
"Dying you destroyed our death,
Rising you restored our life.
Lord Jesus, come in glory"
For me the alternative formula for the distribution of ashes is far more challenging. It reminds me that a living Christianity requires of me repentance and fidelity,
"Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel."
It doesn’t come easily for any of us to repent of those things that at some time have caused us joy, brought us success and may even have defined our life-style. At the time these seductive attractions all seemed so good for us. It seems to me there’s little credit in that remorse that only occurs to us once we’ve been found out and are in danger of being shamed or even of being punished.
All of us need the grace of God to convince us that aspects of our lives that have given us satisfaction and pleasure have been highly offensive to God and that there was dust-like ugliness in their fraudulent beauty. It is the grace of God that brings home to us the awfulness of offending the God who loves us- the God whom we profess to love. In repentance we yearn to be reconciled with God and we resolve to be more faithful to Him. The Good News is that all this is possible because of Jesus dying on the cross for us and rising from the tomb for us.
Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, during which our minds and hearts are prepared for the celebration of the Paschal Mystery, accomplished by Jesus on the Cross and from the Tomb. Ashes on the forehead in the form of a cross express the Christian conviction that the eventual resurrection of our bodies and God’s loving forgiveness of our sins derive from our crucified and risen Lord Jesus. Our repentance makes us open to this.
"Lord, by your cross and resurrection
You have set us free.
You are the Saviour of world."
Our wanting the Church to taint our foreheads with ashes gives us plenty to chew over in our minds and in our hearts, but no reason whatsoever to open our mouths!     

Fr. Peter Clarke, O.P.

No comments:

Post a Comment