In Genesis 3:19 we hear God tell us "for dust thou
art, and into dust thou shalt return," but nowadays, when someone dies,
they are rushed from deathbed to funeral home to be embalmed and to be
worked over by a make-up artist so that that "dusty reality" is hidden
from us. Their deaths are spoken of as almost an embarrassment; "he
passed," they say, or "he is no longer with us." These comforting but
sterile luxuries weren't an option in the past when plagues felled so
many people that there weren't enough survivors to bury them, when
bodies had to be stored all winter until the ground was soft enough to
dig, when most of the children a woman bore died before they were able
to grow up. In our culture, with our medicines and "funeral sciences,"
we are afraid to look at death, and we are a poorer people because of
it. No matter how long science can prolong life, no matter how much
embalming fluid is pumped into a corpse, nature will have her way. This
is Truth. And when nature has her way, we can either rest in the
knowledge that the ultimate Victor is Christ, Our Lord, Who walked out
of His tomb 2,000 years ago and offers resurrection to us, or we can
believe that decay is all that is left. This is the meaning of Ash
Ash Wednesday is the day for being reminded of and contemplating our
mortality, of which Ecclesiasticus 1 reminds us:
profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One
generation passeth away, and another generation cometh...
a new Pope processes to St. Peter's Basilica to offer his first Mass as
Pope, the procession stops three times and, at each stop, a piece of
flax mounted on a reed is burned. As the flames die, the Pope hears the
words, "Pater sancte, sic transit gloria mundi" ("Holy Father, thus
passes the glory of the world"), to remind him not only that he is a
mere man, but as a man, a mere mortal whose end is like the end of all
other men. The things of this world are transient, and Christians must
always keep one eye on the world to come.
Recalling this Truth is one of the principles behind the use of ashes
on the forehead today: to remind us that we are mortal, subject to the
rot and decay our Western culture now desperately tries to euphemize
away, and that we are radically dependent on -- solely
dependent on -- Jesus Christ to overcome this fate.
They are like a yearly contemplation of the tombstone inscribed with:
as you pass by,
as you are now so once was I.
As I am now so you must be.
Prepare for death and follow me.
death should, of course, be avoided as the evil it is, we should accept
the reality of it with the attitude behind the words attributed to the
great Sioux warrior, Crazy Horse: "It is a good day to die" ("Hoka
hey"). Death should not be feared in itself; what should be approached
with trepidation is the judgment that follows -- not because God is a
malicious Father who wants to inflict pain, but because He is as just
as He is merciful. We need to repent, accept the reality of death, and
not only consider our judgment, but be ready for
The Blessing and Disposition of the Ashes
ashes are made by the burning of palms from last year's Palm Sunday --
palms that were waved in victory and praise. That the ashes are made
from burnt palms shows us the link between victory, and penance and
mortification which ashes have always symbolized:
Therefore I reprehend myself, and do penance in dust and ashes.
the Mass, the blessing of the ashes begins with an antiphon and a verse
of a psalm begging God's grace and mercy. Then come four prayers which
express what the ashes symbolize:
To be a spiritual help for all who confess their sins.
2. To secure pardon of sins for those who receive the ashes.
3. To give us the spirit of contrition.
4. To give us the grace and strength to do penance.
the priest sprinkles the ashes with holy water and incenses them, he
puts some on his own forehead, and then imposes the ashes on the
people. In Latin countries, such as Italy, this is done by sprinkling
the ashes over the congregants. In other places, including almost all
of the English-speaking world, this means that he will smear the ashes
on the foreheads of those present, the head being the seat of pride. He
puts them on our foreheads in the shape of a Cross to remind us of our
hope, and as he does so, he says the words of Genesis 3:
homo, quia pulvis es, et in púlverem revertéris
Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.
make no response to these words; we simply return to our pews.
Following the disposition of the ashes come two Antiphons and a
Response. Then the priest says another prayer for protection in the
coming combat, and begins the Mass.
After we leave the church, we leave the ashes on our foreheads until
they wear off naturally from the course of the day's activities. They
are a public witness to those things our society does not wish to
embrace: the reality of death, penance for sin, and the hope of
resurrection in Our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Note that either today or on Passion Sunday, which begins Passiontide,
the statues in your church will be veiled in purple cloth and will
remain so until the Easter Vigil, when, in the most stunning liturgy of
the entire Church year, they are unveiled while bells ring!
places where palms can't be found for use on Palm Sunday, it is often
the custom for Ash Wednesday to bring pussy willow branches inside and
place them in vases of water -- in the same way that cherry branches
are brought in on
the Feast of St. Barbara
-- so the catkins will bud and stay fresh for use in place of palms on
the Sunday before Easter. Even where palms are available, this is a
lovely custom that reminds us of where the Season of Lent is headed...
Because today begins the Lenten fast, a ritual is made in some places
of saying farewell to Carnival. All over Spain, this custom has --
paradoxically, given the vast amounts of fish eaten during Lent -- come
to include the burial of the sardine -- "Entierro de la Sardina." A
mock funeral is held with "mourners," dressed in black and dramatically
"weeping," forming a procession through the streets behind a coffin
carrying a poor little fish. This sardine can be real or an effigy,
life-sized or large, but once at its grave, it is ceremoniously buried
amid great "lamentations." This sort of ceremony is
held in other places on Holy
Saturday, when, for example, in Poland, a herring is buried
to mark the end of the Lenten fast -- and the end
of endless fish dinners!
In many places in Italy, Lent is personified by the effigy of an old
woman that is displayed during Lent, and then burned at the stake
(sometimes after a "trial") at the end of the season. One such custom
is that of hanging the effigy from a rope between two balconies all
throughout the Lenten season, and attaching to it a bottle of wine, an
orange, and six cookies -- one of which is removed on each of the six
Sundays of Lent until no more remain. Such a custom serves as a way to
mark the time 'til Easter, in the same way that Advent calendars do for
Christmas. A family could get very imaginative here and think of other
ways to count down the days of penance. One could have a system of
counting down the forty-six days of Lent (from Ash Wednesday to Holy
Saturday, inclusive), the six Sundays of Lent, or what not. Or one
could simply hang a little "Lent
(will open in new
browser window) on the fridge and let the children place a sticker on
each day as it ends. Another clever way of counting down the
penitential days to
Easter is to have the children make a paper chain of forty links. On
each link, have them write down an act of kindness, penance, or prayer
that they can reasonably do. On each day of Lent (Sundays don't
count!), have them
tear off a
chain and perform the act written on it. Counting the remaining links
will let them know how many more days of penance there will be. If one
would like to also know how many actual calendar days are left until
Easter Sunday, one could insert a different-colored chain to represent
the Lord's Day (i.e., the first four links would be one color, and the
5th link would be differently colored to represent Sunday. From there
on out, every 7th link would match the 5th link in color).
Most importantly, today is a day of fasting and abstinence, a day to
recall the most profound truths of our existence. During the day today
(everyday, actually), meditate on the fact of your mortality -- what it
means, and how to avoid eternal death by believing, repenting, and
obeying the Father. Consider the image of a sparrow in Winter used by
the Venerable Bede (d. 735) in the thirteenth chapter of the second
book of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Bede
attributes the following words to one of King Edwin's men who was
trying to convince the King to listen to the Gospel that was being
present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison of that time
which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through
the room wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and
ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and
snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and
immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the
wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately
vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had
emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what
went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant. If,
therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems
justly to deserve to be followed.
few readings for you to consider are the poem "His Meditation Upon
Death" by Robert Herrick (A.D. 1591-1674) and Thomas á Kempis's
"Meditation on Death" from his "The Imitation of Christ." This last can
be downloaded in Microsoft Word .doc format (2 pages) here.
For a blast of
reality from pop culture, listen to William Shatner's "You're
Gonna Die" (MP3). For the metal-lovers out there, check out
Black Label Society's "Life, Birth, Blood, Doom" track. And, finally,
there's this offering from the great Johnny Cash, whom, it seems,
Meditation Upon Death
by Robert Herrick
those few hours, which I have yet to spend,
Blest with the meditation of my end :
Though they be few in number, I'm content :
If otherwise, I stand indifferent.
Nor makes it matter Nestor's years to tell,
If man lives long, and if he live not well.
A multitude of days still heaped on,
Seldom brings order, but confusion.
Might I make choice, long life should be withstood;
Nor would I care how short it were, if good :
Which to effect, let ev'ry passing-bell
Possess my thoughts, “next comes my doleful knell”;
And when the
night persuades me to my bed,
I'll think I'm going to be buried.
So shall the blankets which come over me
Present those turfs which once must cover me :
And with as firm behaviour I will meet
The sheet I sleep in as my winding-sheet.
When sleep shall bathe his body in mine eyes,
I will believe that then my body dies :
And if I chance to wake and rise thereon,
I'll have in mind my resurrection
Which must produce me to that General Doom,
To which the peasant, so the prince, must come,
To hear the Judge give sentence on the throne,
Without the least hope of affection.
Tears, at that day, shall make but weak defence,
When hell and horror fright the conscience.
Let me, though late, yet at the last, begin
To shun the least temptation to a sin;
Though to be tempted be no sin, until
Man to th' alluring object gives his will.
Such let my life assure me, when my breath
Goes thieving from me, I am safe in death;
Which is the height of comfort : when I fall,
I rise triumphant in my funeral.
Chapter 23 of "The Imitation of Christ"
By Thomas á Kempis (d. A.D. 1471)
soon the end of your life will be at hand: consider, therefore, the
state of your soul. Today a man is here; tomorrow he is gone.(I
Machabees 2:63) And when he is out of sight, he is soon out of mind.
Oh, how dull and hard is the heart of man, which thinks only of the
present, and does not provide against the future! You should order your
every deed and thought, as though today were the day of your death. Had
you a good conscience, death would hold no terrors for you; (Luke
12:37) even so, it were better to avoid sin than to escape death.
(Wisdom 4:16) If you are not ready to die today, will tomorrow find you
better prepared? (Matthew 24:44) Tomorrow is uncertain; and how can you
be sure of tomorrow? Of what use is a long life, if we amend so little?
Alas, a long life often adds to our sins rather than to our virtue!
Would to God that we might spend a single day really well! Many recount
the years since their conversion, but their lives show little sign of
improvement. If it is dreadful to die, it is perhaps more dangerous to
live long. Blessed is the man who keeps the hour of his death always in
mind, and daily prepares himself to die. If you have ever seen anyone
die, remember that you, too, must travel the same road.(Hebrews 9:27)
Each morning remember that you may not live until evening; and in the
evening, do not presume to promise yourself another day. Be ready at
all times, (Luke 21:36) and so live that death may never find you
unprepared. Many die suddenly and unexpectedly; for at an hour that we
do not know the Son of Man will come. (Matthew 24:44) When your last
hour strikes, you will begin to think very differently of your past
life, and grieve deeply that you have been so careless and remiss.
Happy and wise is he who endeavours to be during his life as he wishes
to be found at his death. For these things will afford us sure hope of
a happy death; perfect contempt of the world; fervent desire to grow in
holiness; love of discipline; the practice of penance; ready obedience;
self-denial; the bearing of every trial for the love of Christ. While
you enjoy health, you can do much good; but when sickness comes, little
can be done. Few are made better by sickness, and those who make
frequent pilgrimages seldom acquire holiness by so doing.
Do not rely on friends and neighbours, and do not delay the salvation
of your soul to some future date, for men will forget you sooner than
you think. It is better to make timely provision and to acquire merit
in this life, than to depend on the help of others. And if you have no
care for your own soul, who will have care for you in time to come? The
present time is most precious; now is the accepted time, now is the day
of salvation. (2 Corinthians 6:2) It is sad that you do not employ your
time better, when you may win eternal life hereafter. The time will
come when you will long for one day or one hour in which to amend; and
who knows whether it will be granted?
Dear soul, from what peril and fear you could free yourself, if you
lived in holy fear, mindful of your death. Apply yourself so to live
now, that at the hour of death, you may be glad and unafraid. Learn now
to die to the world, that you may begin to live with Christ. (Romans
6:8) Learn now to despise ail earthly things, that you may go freely to
Christ. Discipline your body now by penance, that you may enjoy a sure
hope of salvation.
Foolish man, how can you promise yourself a long life, when you are not
certain of a single day? (Luke 12:20) How many have deceived themselves
in this way, and been snatched unexpectedly from life! You have often
heard how this man was slain by the sword; another drowned; how another
fell from a high place and broke his neck; how another died at table
how another met his end in play. One perishes by fire, another by the
sword, another from disease, another at the hands of robbers. Death is
the end of all men (Ecclesiasticus 7:2) and the life of man passes away
suddenly as a shadow.(Psalm 38:7; 143:4)
Who will remember you when you are dead? Who will pray for you? Act
now, dear soul; do all you can; for you know neither the hour of your
death, nor your state after death. While you have time, gather the
riches of everlasting life. (Luke 12:33; Galatians 6:8) Think only of
your salvation, and care only for the things of God. Make friends now,
by honouring the Saints of God and by following their example, that
when this life is over, they may welcome you to your eternal home.(Luke
Keep yourself a stranger and pilgrim upon earth, (I Peter 2:11), to
whom the affairs of this world are of no concern. Keep your heart free
and lifted up to God, for here you have no abiding city.(Hebrews13:14)
Daily direct your prayers and longings to Heaven, that at your death
your soul may merit to pass joyfully into the presence of God.