Ash Wednesday is more than an empty ritual—it is a reminder of our mortality and frailty.
Rosary beads, holy water, incense, ashes, et cetera—the “sacramentals” used in prayer and liturgy give Catholicism much of its distinctive flavor. As we are physical creatures in love with a God-made-flesh, the Church encourages the use of material objects to bring us closer to God. This sacred “stuff” engages our bodies and at the same time signifies a higher, spiritual reality, so that our every facet is worshiping. However, there’s a potential danger surrounding the sacramentals—the danger that we’ll forget about the spiritual significance and focus only on what we can see or touch. Sadly, for many people, this is precisely what has happened to Ash Wednesday.
Every year my parish is more crowded on Ash Wednesday than any other day of the year: families pack the pews while college students lean back against the outer walls. The line to receive ashes is long and grueling, but after being branded with a sooty cross, a large percentage of the attendants hastily make their departure. There’s much more elbow-room at the liturgy of the Eucharist than there was at the liturgy of the Word.
Why do so many more come to this penitential rite than to Mass on Sundays or Holy Days of Obligation? Why do they present themselves for some blessed dirt and not for the Second Person of the Trinity incarnate in the host? Have they forgotten what the dirt means? Perhaps if they remembered, they’d stick around to adore their God.
The dirt is a reminder of our origins and our future. “Remember, O man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” Physically, we came from dust; there was a time when we, like Adam, were no more than inanimate matter, and there will be a time when we die and our bodies are again resolved into the elements. Why does that happen? Why do we have to go back to dust? Very simple: because we’re sick. Deathly sick. We’ve caught the contagion of sin from our First Parents and it wreaks havoc on our whole human system—body, soul and spirit. We’re going to die.
The experience of death is universal. Yet many people would rather not think about it. But Christianity doesn’t allow for that kind of denial; we must face death squarely and carefully decide how we are going to approach it. First of all, we define death as the separation of soul and body, the division of the two component parts of the human being, and whenever component parts are separated, destruction takes place. For instance, when you smash a clock, its gears and hands and frame are separated from each other, and we say that the clock is broken. Likewise, the separation of the soul and body signals the end of what was a human being.
If death were fitting to our nature, we’d have no problem with it. Death, however, scares us: cemeteries and corpses unnerve us, and the thought of ourselves or a loved one in a casket is profoundly disturbing. This is because death wasn’t supposed to happen. It’s an effect of original sin; it is, perhaps, the most vivid and unnatural fact around.
Fortunately, God brought good out of evil. He took the evil of death, and made it the occasion of redemption for the whole human race. God himself came to earth and died for the salvation of the world by rising again and thus giving us the opportunity to rise with him. “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom 8:11). In other words, our Lord conquered death, and his conquest allows us to hope for a new life beyond the threshold of our mortality.
The consequence for the Christian is that death’s terror is diluted. “Oh death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55). Death itself has now been charged with a new positive significance. Now, instead of just marking the end of our temporal life, death marks the beginning of our eternal life. Christian death is now the door through which we finally reach heaven and perfect happiness. Further, the fact of death lends a certain dramatic urgency to our lives. Remembering our mortality helps us realize that we have a limited amount of time to accept the saving grace of Christ and become the persons God created us to be.
This is why it’s important to meditate on death. Our mortality not only reminds us of the everlasting destiny awaiting us, but also teaches us that we’re not dead yet, and that we should be using every precious day in working for our salvation and the salvation of others. “It isn’t only meant to remind us of a future life, but to remind us of a present life too.”1 The focus on our own mortality has always been central to the Catholic mentality. In early monasticism, monks would keep a skull in their room and exhort one another, Memento mori—“Remember that you will die.” Recalling death leads us to meditate on the brevity of our days and on the eternity which will follow.
In addition to thinking about death, these forty days of Lent are given us to practice death. During Lent we fast and abstain so that in little acts of dying to ourselves we can be united to the One who died for us. Our Lord spent forty days fasting as well as praying. So too, when we fast or offer up other penances, by saying “no” to worldly goods, we are empowered to declare Jesus’ “yes” with greater freedom and completeness. Unless we habitually engage in self-denial, how can we expect to resist the lures of temptation? Beyond this, daily mortification or self-sacrifice strengthens the will and, when joined to the sufferings of Jesus on the Cross, can bring great graces to souls (cf. Col 1:24). As Pius XII stated, “These heavenly gifts will surely flow more abundantly…if we restrain this mortal body by voluntary mortification, denying it what is forbidden, and by forcing it to do what is hard and distasteful; and finally, if we humbly accept as from God’s hands the burdens and sorrows of this present life.”2 Forgoing seasoning on food, ice in drinks, taking less-than-hot showers, or anything that can be done silently as an act of self-sacrifice, can be of great supernatural benefit, especially fitting during this Lenten season.
Like the Catholic life, Lent is framed around both the awareness and preparation for death, as well as around the hope of everlasting life. They go together: the terminal illness and the possibility of a cure; the passion, death, and Resurrection; the ashes and the Easter candles. Ash Wednesday warns us of how dire our situation is, how sinful, how moribund, and how desperately needed are the graces which come from prayer, fasting and almsgiving, not to mention confession and the Eucharist. If we miss the point of the ashes, we’ll miss the path to Easter.
To help see what’s lacking in the prevalent attitude toward Ash Wednesday, think of the following scenario: Imagine an oncology center that hosts an annual Cancer Awareness Day and hands out stickers that read, “I suffer from cancer.” Imagine further that every year, a man with a malignant tumor showed up just to collect his sticker. Every year the director of the treatment center approached the sick man and said, “You know, we have a lot of treatment options here. Why don’t you stay and we’ll see what we can do for you?” And every year the sick man said, “Oh, no thanks. I just like the sticker.”
It’s not enough to just like the sticker, and it’s not enough just to like the ashes on our foreheads. Ashes aren’t a fashion statement. Ashes are not an esoteric Catholic “thing,” not a remnant of nostalgia or cultural heritage. They are much more: the recognition that something is definitely wrong with us, gravely wrong. From Christ’s hands, then, ashes become our outward pledge to seek his divine healing. If we wear the black mark with pride in our Savior and Church, we should also wear it with penitence and sorrow for our poor personal condition. That penitential sorrow will lead us through the next forty days to a glorious celebration. It will lead us through life to death, and then to life again.