Ash Wednesday 2018 [February 14, 2018] Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
“For you are dust, and to dust, you shall return. (Gen. 3:19)”
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the liturgical session of Lent in the Catholic Church. Its name derives from an ancient tradition of the imposition of the ashes. Every Catholic who attends the mass on this day will receive a sign of the cross made of ashes on his or her forehead. The ashes are ordinarily coming from the burned palm leaves blessed at the Palm Sunday of the previous year.
Why ashes? Is it in the Bible?
In the Bible, ash (or dust) symbolizes our mortal and fragile humanity. We recall how God created humanity from the dust of the earth (Gen 2:7). Indeed, after Adam committed the first act of disobedience, God reminded Adam of his finite nature, “For you are dust, and to dust, you shall return. (Gen. 3:19)” Because of sin, death upset the creation and brought Adam and all his children back to the ground. Thus, when a priest imposes ashes on our foreheads with the same formula, it becomes a poignant reminder of who we are. Human as we are, relying on our own strength and ability, despite our success, glory, and pride, will die and go back to the earth.
Ash is also a mark of grief, humility, and repentance. After the preaching of Jonah, the people of Nineveh repented, and they wore sackcloth and sat on ashes, begging forgiveness (Jon 3:5-6). Under the leadership of Nehemiah, the citizen of Jerusalem assembled and asked for God’s forgiveness. They all gathered together “while fasting and wearing sackcloth, their heads covered with dust (Neh 9:1). That explains why the priest also says, “repent and believe in the Gospel!” while imposing the ashes on our foreheads. Just like the ancient Israelites, it is a sign and invitation for us to change our lives and seek God’s mercy and forgiveness.
The cross of ash is the sign of our finite humanity, and even death. Paradoxically, however, it also turns to be a symbol of our true strength and life. When we realize and acknowledge that we are mere ashes in God’s hands, it is also the time we become once again truly alive. Just as God breathed His spirit in the first human made of dust, so God gives us His grace that enables us to participate in His divine life. We are truly alive precisely because we are now sharing in God’s life. The cross of ashes turns to be the moment of our re-creation. As St. Paul says, “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. (Gal. 2:20)”
Sometimes, the ash of repentance brings us sadness and gloominess as we reflect our sinfulness and frailty. As today is the day of fasting and abstinence, we also feel hungry and lethargic. Yet, it must not stop there. It should lead us to the Gospel, the Good News. It is Good News because we are now saved and alive! When we repent, we remove all things make our lives heavy, things that turn us away from God. We become once again light and energetic. As we turn ourselves to God, who is the source of life, we cannot but become alive and full of joy. It is ash that leads us to the Gospel, the joy of the Gospel.
Br. Valentinus Bayuhadi Ruseno, OP