Dust and Ashes

Cross of Ashes

Photo: Jennifer Balaska

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. (Genesis 3:19)

I went to Mass today for Ash Wednesday, just like I’ve done for the last eleven years. As an Episcopalian, I came to associate that quote from Genesis—said as Adam and Eve are expelled from the garden—with the imposition of ashes. Each year, on this day, I would kneel at the rail, and the priest would trace a dark grey cross on my forehead while saying those words:

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Since I became Catholic, I miss those words. It is one of the options for the priest to say when he imposes ashes, but in my short experience I’ve not heard it. Instead I have stood in line (I also miss the rail) and as the priest traced the cross on my forehead, he has said:

“Repent and believe the Gospel.” (Mark 1:15.)

The words Jesus said upon returning from his forty days in the desert: the words that launched his public ministry. But I miss the old words. I miss the immediate connection between the ash on my forehead and the dust that I am. I miss the reminder of my own mortality: that sin and death are bound together and that Christ will conquer both on Easter Day. Most of all, I miss the reminder to make the next 40 days count.

You are dust . . .

A breath . . . a passing shadow. (Psalm 144:4)

Time is short and I need to reset my priorities. I need to get back on the path from which I’ve strayed. I need to put away the things that cause me to stumble and to sin, and take up the things that lead me to Christ.

I need to give things up; not just the usual lenten sacrifices like chocolate and meat on Fridays, but things that really get in the way. This year, what I really need to give up is anger.

Here’s an example: Yesterday, I stopped by the post office after I dropped Anna off at school. The line was all but out the door (typical on a day after a holiday), so I used the automated machine instead. Everything was fine until the door on the collection bin jammed. I stood there, three stamped packages in hand, and I felt that slow-rolling boil inside me. It took me another ten minutes to get someone’s attention—despite the long line there were only two people working—and even then I had to leave the packages on the counter. I have no idea how long they sat there until they finally got taken back and no idea when the collection-bin door was finally fixed.

I cussed under my breath as I left and out loud as I drove home. The whole time I knew my anger was wrong, that it was hurting me and not changing anything for the better. It didn’t make the line any shorter or unstick the collection bin. All anger ever does is make me feel worse. I have to find a way to let that anger go.

And I need to take things up: like prayer. I already made “pray” my One Word for 2012. I’ve had mixed results so far, but I’ve learned that when I pray I gain other benefits as well: like patience, and forgiveness, which will help me with my anger.

I spent the last few days  putting the final touches on my plans for Lent, and I’m not going to list details here (that could easily become a kind of boasting). But in all that I give up and all that I take on over these forty days, I will make sure to keep the words I didn’t hear today in mind:

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

And in doing so, I will answer Jesus’ call; the words I did hear today:

Repent and believe the Gospel.

Gospel: good news. Believe the good news.

It’s hard to be angry when you get good news.

2 thoughts on “Dust and Ashes

  1. Great article. This was my first Ash Wednesday service (I’m a convert, grew up baptist, then went pagan during teens / 20’s) and our Father and Deacon both used the line “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return”. It was a very solemn service, loved it very much.


  2. Solemnity is catching back on in the Catholic Church. By the way, this is my first Lenten season as a Catholic. I was enrolled in RCIA this time last year. Thanks for reading and commenting. God bless.


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