Ash Wednesday: 2016
Remember, O man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.
One upon a time the liturgy of the ashes seemed to confirm the less flattering suspicions of the critics of Christianity. Christians are far too pessimistic; they are always looking for the worst in man, obsessed with sin and death; they cannot affirm the nobility of man. That is still a common view but things have changed. The contention now is that human beings are just animals, maybe highly developed animals, but still the chance product of blind biological processes, merely chunks of physical matter to be investigated and dissected like the rest of the material universe. So in a sense the the opponents of Christianity, not realizing that the Church has known about this all along, have at last come around to the point of view of Ash Wednesday: thou art dust and until dust that shall return.
But only in a sense. The fact remains that the only folks around who have a real grasp of the dignity of man are Christians. The book of Genesis, the same book of the Bible which insists that we are dust also tells us that we are created in the image and likeness of God. The Church which smears that ugly mess on our foreheads also prays “O God, who didst wondrously create and more wonderfully redeem the dignity of human nature.” The one institution which insists upon human freedom to choose, to buck the gravitational pull of natural inclinations and biological imperatives is the Church. It is the Church which must pray before the bit about dust: “Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made.”
Still we are dust. We are untidy unities of Body and Soul and that we cannot forget but must remember. It is that which sets us apart from the beasts, on the one hand, and the angels, on the other. It is also that which at once is the source of our nobility and our debasement. We are dust but dust with ambitions both for good and ill.
The Ash Wednesday message is hardly one of gloom and doom. Rather it is one of comfort. For, as the Psalm tells us, God "knows our fashioning; he remembers that we are but dust." We need to be reminded of it once a year; He remembers it all the time. He knows all the flaws in our make-up which predispose us to this or that bad habit; the force of every temptation. If we are tempted to lose heart because we so often fall short of our own ideals, are false to our own natures, it is important once again to remember that we are dust; there is a natural instability about us which explains, even if it does not excuse what we do.
It is not plain dust that is used on Ash Wednesday, but ashes - those of the palms which were carried in procession on Palm Sunday the year before. It is the dead remains of something we can remember as a living thing not so very long ago; the embers of glory. The symbolism of that is plain enough.
The ashes are a foretaste of the dust that will rattle, one day, on our coffin. And, by a kind of grim irony, spring, early or late, is the moment chosen for this importunate reminder. Just when earth is beginning to put out its first shy promise of green, we are plucked by the sleeve and reminded that we are dust. Several of the Saints have owed their conversion to the contemplation of an open tomb. But the experience came to them in youth; only so can it come as a revelation. I suppose that is why Lent happens in spring, the season of hope.
Stimulated by Msgr. Knox's Stimuli
Stimulated by Msgr. Knox's Stimuli