Russell Shaw" />

The words that drive people to Ash Wednesday Mass: ‘Remember, you are dust’

A man receives ashes during Ash Wednesday Mass. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

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Why are so many people so keen on “getting the ashes”? The question naturally comes to mind as Ash Wednesday approaches.

Maybe it will be different this year — lots of things are different in the Age of Covid — but in normal times, in the past, the first day of Lent, along with Christmas and Easter, has been one of the times in the year when packed churches were the rule instead of the exception.

For several years, I worked in an office in Washington, D.C., a five-minute walk from the White House, and, attending midday Mass on Ash Wednesday in one of the downtown churches, I invariably was moved at seeing the universality of the Church so visibly enacted by the long line of worshipers streaming up the aisle to get their ashes.

Here were men and women, old and young, white and black, Asian and Hispanic, street vendors and bureaucrats, construction workers in their work clothes, lawyers in custom tailored suits — and all of them come together to acknowledge the same profoundly egalitarian truth: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Yes, I know — an alternative to that has come into use in recent years. I have no quarrel with those who prefer it. But to me at least — and also to many others, I suspect — it’s the “You are dust” formula that strikes the authentic Lenten note of sorrow for sin in light of the overwhelming fact of our mortality.

I don’t mean to suggest that this is in any way a cheerful message. Cheerful it’s not, and upbeat it was never meant to be. So what is it that year after year draws people to take part in the slightly strange ritual of having a smudge of ashes placed on their foreheads and being told to remember that sooner or later they will turn to dust?

The answer, I think, is this: Most of us are subjected much of the time either to treacly torrents of sweet talk or great billows of hot air. Among the sources of one or both of these things are commercials, political slogans, and — sad to say — ideologically slanted news coverage and commentary. And yes, add feel-good homilies to the list. This is the toxic verbal diet we are constantly fed. We know it, we resent it, but there is precious little we can do about it.

But once a year, on Ash Wednesday, that ancient institution, the Catholic Church, addresses us in plain, unvarnished speech on a matter of utmost, ultimate importance.

In doing this, the Church has an eminent teacher and model. Addressing the Roman governor Pilate with his life at stake, Jesus said: “You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” And Pilate, unwittingly representing those in every time and place who neither speak the truth themselves nor care to hear it spoken by others, memorably sneers, “What is truth?” (Jn 18:37-38).

So what moves people year after year to keep coming to get their ashes? The answer should be obvious. For most, this is one of the too few occasions when in symbol and in word something that is true and of immeasurable importance is communicated to them: “Remember, you are dust, and to dust you will return.”

What a blessing it is to hear that truth spoken on Ash Wednesday.

Russell Shaw is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.

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