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A man came up to me, and I was about to offer him the cup when he waved it away.
“I just have a question,” he whispered. “Will you give out ashes after mass?”
I looked at him, a little bewildered, and I nodded. “Uh, yeah,” I said. “But — ?”
“Okay,” he replied. “Great. Thanks.”
And he went back to his seat.
Further proof, if any were needed, that we just can’t live without our ashes.
A priest friend of mine thinks it’s because it’s one of the few times people can come to church and get something for free.
Well, maybe. But maybe there are other reasons, too.
For one thing, these ashes are enduring reminders of our Catholic identity – a way that we can continue to brand ourselves as believers, and bind ourselves together. In a culture that is increasingly splintered and split apart, those ashes on our foreheads proclaim to the world who and what we are.
You could also argue that it is such a part of our tradition, nobody wants to give it up. From our earliest days, we are brought to Church to get ashes – parents will even bring babies, to have them dabbed with dust. You feel somehow left out if you don’t get them.
But I think there is something else to it, too. Something that cuts to the heart of life — and death.
A few years ago, the man who hired me for my first job after college got a call from his doctor, telling him that he had lung cancer. The doctor told him that there was nothing they could do.
The man hung up the phone, and looked at his family, seated around the kitchen table, stunned.
And he smiled.
“Be of good cheer,” he said, “None of us gets out of this world alive.”
That is what Ash Wednesday says to us.
It is the great leveler.
On Ash Wednesday, we are not brilliant or creative or dynamic or sexy or strong. We are not beautiful or powerful. We are not rich or poor, healthy or sick. We are not young or old.
We are just simple sinners.
We are made of dust. And to dust we will return.
Almost a year ago, we began the Easter season with a roaring fire at the door of the Church – we re-lived the creation of the universe, and it exploded into hundreds of points of light: small, bright candles that were held by every one in the church. We sang: “Christ Our Light, thanks be to God.” And we were made new.
Now, it is a year later.
And what we are left with…is ashes.
So for this one day we will bear that mark — the remnants of a great blaze, the residue of a fiery faith that maybe has cooled, that isn’t as strong as it could be.
And for this day, we will let others see this mark, as a sign of repentance, and humility, and humanity. Maybe, as the day goes on, we will forget about it, and suddenly catch sight of ourselves in the bathroom mirror, and realize, with a shock:
We are dust. And to dust we will return.
And we will see others like us on the street and think: we have plenty of company.
Ultimately, that is all we are in this earthly life: dust. But we dream to be more. We know we can be more. And so we make this 40-day journey – joining Jesus in the desert – to strive to be better than what we are, and become what we hope to be.To become more than dust – to become, in fact, light. Burning, brilliant light.
And so we join the psalmist and sing:
“Be merciful Lord, for we have sinned.”
We rend our hearts.
And we begin this long walk into the wilderness.
Because we are dust. And to dust we will return.
We wear this mark, if only for this day, as a reflection of where we came from, and where we are all destined to go.
But we are reminded of something else, too: it is the middle that matters.
It is that lifetime stretching in between that matters.
What will we do with that time? How will we live? What will we be?
These 40 days are a blessed opportunity to carry those questions in our hearts – and in answering them, reconcile ourselves with one another, and with God.
Hundreds of years ago, St. Catherine of Siena said, “If you are what you should be, you will set the world on fire.”
This day, look at the ashes.
But think of the fire.
And let us pray, this Lent, to set the world ablaze.