A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Ash Wednesday Reality

Fr Kevin Head SM

When I was a small boy in a small town, Ash Wednesday embarrassed me. We had a succession of parish priests with thumbs that seemed gargantuan to a child. They deposited great day-lasting dollops of ash on all available foreheads. Even babes in arms were not exempt: ‘Remember man that thou art dust …’. This was a long time before the days of inclusive language; and fifty percent or more of the time, of course, the ‘men’ who were to remember their dustiness were women.

It was made very clear that we children were not to rub the ashes off our foreheads – we were to be a sign to the predominantly Protestant population in the town that we were standing up for our faith. On the other hand, the Gospel reading at Mass said that we were not to parade our good deeds in the main street (Matthew 6:1).

What was a chap to do? I rubbed my ashes off and felt guilty for the rest of the day and for most of the six weeks of Lent!

As children, most of us had some idea of what Ash Wednesday was about. The fact is that when the ashes are placed on our foreheads in the form of a cross, we are ‘branded’ again, as it were, with the sign of Baptism. The ashes are more than a sign that we will die. They are in the form of the cross that freed us and continues to free us from sin, and it is the cross that brings us forgiveness and ushers us into intimate and joyful relationship with God.

We are sane to the degree that we are in touch with the realities of the world in which we live, and the realities of our own lives. Those who are out of touch with reality in one way or another, we consider to be more or less insane. Many years ago, in his book ‘Theology and Sanity’, Frank Sheed wrote, “Sanity … does not mean living in the same world as everyone else; it means living in the real world. But some of the most important elements in the real world can be known only by the revelation of God …”. And, later on, “God is at the centre of the being of everything whatsoever. If we would see the universe aright, we must see it God-bathed”.

I think C.S. Lewis was saying much the same thing when he wrote, “This is only the land of shadows. Real life hasn’t begun yet”. Real life, God’s life, is presently beyond our grasp and our comprehension, merely hinted at and glimpsed, by a gift of grace, in transitory moments of enlightenment, joy and peace.

One of the basic realities of human life, and, I believe, a pre-requisite for living in the real world – being sane – is to acknowledge that we are made of dust and that we will return to dust.

That’s why the dispenser of the ashes may say to us on Ash Wednesday, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return”. The sentence references the third chapter of Genesis, when God takes Adam to task for his disobedience: “With sweat on your brow shall you eat your bread, until you return to the soil, as you were taken from it. For dust you are and to dust you shall return” (3:19).

The words of the admonition put us in touch with God’s world and our own reality. We came from dust, and our bodies will return to dust. And once more on Ash Wednesday, the Lord invites us into his endless forgiveness and asks us again to take the means to grow into a closer relationship with him this Lent.   

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