Ash Wednesday brings Catholics out in great numbers, including those who don’t frequently attend church. In New York City such is the desire to receive the penitential ashes that priests distribute them in the great hall of Grand Central Station.
This year has occasioned some unusual commentary because Ash Wednesday is also Valentine’s Day. As you would expect, the requirement that Catholics fast and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday is not lifted in favour of the rather secular observance of the Valentine’s Day. But the coincidence of the two does invite reflection.
It doesn’t happen often. Since 1900, Ash Wednesday has fallen on Valentine's Day only three times, in 1923, 1934 and 1945. Looking ahead it will fall on Valentine's Day again in 2024 and 2029 and then not again for the rest of the century. So in 200 years, it will happen six times.
We were made for love. Genesis tells as much, when the Lord God decreed that it was not good for man to be alone. Eve was fashioned for Adam, one whom he could love, rather than rule over like the beasts. Yet it all went sour so soon.
Ash Wednesday takes us back to that aboriginal drama. When the priest puts the ashes on the forehead, he has two options. He can say: “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” Those are the words of Jesus in Mark 1:15, at the beginning of His public ministry. Jesus prepared for that public ministry with forty days of fasting in the desert. Lent can be something similar for us, disciples following the example of the Master.
I prefer the other formula though: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” That’s Biblical too, from Genesis 3:19. It goes back to the beginning, to the calamity that we found ourselves in after the fall. All that God created, all that He found to be good, is destined for dust. And we, who were created so very good, are destined for dust as well.
Adam and Eve meet their judge in the garden, and He delivers a withering sentence (Gen 3:16-19):
To the woman he said,
“I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.”
And to Adam he said,
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife,
and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
One would expect Adam to be rather dejected, even despondent. Yet he responds with something like satisfaction, even joyful expectation (Gen 3:20):
The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living.
Like the boy in the barn full of manure who delights at evidence that a pony is about, Adam detects in the Lord God’s enumeration of the consequences of sin that Eve is to bear children. In painful labour – minimized by the man, not for the last time! – to be sure, but she will be a mother. There are the consequences of sin, which are real and devastating, but there is also the promise of life. And the promise of life is what leads to Adam to proclaim his wife “Eve”, for the Lord God has promised to grant the gift of life; the dust shall live again.
Lent is a season of liturgical dust. Things begin to fall away and die. There is no Alleluia chanted, the Gloria is set aside during Holy Mass. Flowers do not appear in the church; the organ is silenced. Eventually, even the images in the church are veiled and finally, on Good Friday, the very altar is stripped bare. When the faithful gather on the night of Holy Saturday, keeping vigil for the Lord, even the light has been extinguished. It’s much more than returning to dust; it is a return to the primeval void, awaiting the Spirit to breathe upon the darkness.
Yet there remains the promise of life. That’s why Ash Wednesday is more extravagant than the most ardent lover is to his beloved on Valentine’s Day. Ash Wednesday is sober and an unblinking at the reality of it all; dust, and bones, and ashes is all we find in the grave. Ash Wednesday asks us to think about the grave that awaits each of us, but also of that grave that awaited Him. There are no ashes and bones in that grave. It is empty. He is not there, for He is risen.
Like Adam in Eden who, when warned about the reign of death, clings to the promise of life, so too we join the queue for our ashes, to count ourselves among those returning to the dust, so that we might be counted among those over whom the dust will no longer have any power.
A blessed Ash Wednesday!
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