Unto Dust Thou Shalt Return
February 22nd Readings Reflection: Ash Wednesday
Today is perhaps one of the most easily recognized days in the Church’s liturgical calendar. It is the first day of the holy season of Lent, a season marked by forty days of prayer and sacrifice. We no longer pray the Gloria at Mass, the organ is no longer used (or used very minimally), and the Mass readings take on a markedly somber tone. Yet despite this all—or perhaps because of it—Lent is a beautiful season.
Today’s Gospel reading sets the tone for the entire season. The Church asks us to fast for at least two days during Lent—Ash Wednesday and Good Friday—as a means of subduing the flesh and reminding us of our total dependance on God. Fasting and other penances are very holy practices, but Jesus reminds us of the true reason why we do them. If our penances are merely for show, to earn the respect and esteem of those around us, then they reap no spiritual benefits. However, when we perform penance in a spirit of humility, not seeking the attention or praise of others but rather offering them in reparation for our sins and for the sins of the world, we receive abundant graces from God: “[Y]our Father [W]ho sees what is hidden will repay you.”
When the priest places the ashes on our foreheads today, he chooses one of two verses to say. One is, “Repent and believe in the Gospel,” and the other is, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Both of these encapsulate the purpose of Lent. Our Lenten observances and penances should be performed in a spirit of repentance as we seek to draw closer to Christ.
The ashes are also a reminder that God made man out of the dust of the earth, breathing into him the “breath of life” (Gen 2:7 DRB). While we have immaterial souls that cannot die, our bodies will one day die and decompose back into dust. This is a sobering thought, one against which our human pride rebels. We do not like to think of our mortality, because it reminds us that we are not omnipotent but rather owe everything to God. However, during the season of Lent, the Church calls us to remember that we are nothing without God and to repent of our sins so that we may one day obtain eternal life. While our bodies will return to dust on this earth, we have hope that they will one day be reunited with our souls to be glorified for all eternity.
In closing, I found an excerpt from the ancient prayers of the Ash Wednesday Blessing of Ashes, which I think summarizes the meaning of this day quite well. This prayer is from the early centuries of the Church and has been adapted over the centuries in the various revisions to the Missal. May it serve as a reminder of the inner repentance we should strive to possess during these next forty days, so that we can greet the Risen Lord with clean hearts on Easter.
“Almighty and everlasting God, spare the penitent…bless these ashes, that they may be a remedy to all who invoke Thy name....O God, Who desirest not the death but the conversion of sinners, look in kindness upon our human frailty…and bless these ashes, so that we, who know ourselves to be but ashes…and that we must return to dust, may deserve to obtain pardon and the rewards offered to the penitent.” (From the Roman Catholic Daily Missal, 1962 Edition).
I did not know the prayer over the ashes! Thank you adding the additional history to our practice!
My favorite part of the blessing of the ashes prayer was "spare the penitent".