To Dust Ye Shall Return

Feb 21st, 2012 | By | Category: Blog Posts

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. It is the beginning of Lent in the western Church, a 40-day season of penance. During this time, Christians traditionally show our sorrow for our sins by making a voluntary sacrifice, and possibly by taking up additional forms of self-discipline. These are, contra pop culture, to be done discretely, privately, without fan fare.

By marking out this 40-day period (exclusive of Sundays) for Lent, Christians are united to Moses in his period of fasting and penance after observing the golden calf. We are united to Christ in his period of fasting and prayer in the desert preceding his public ministry. We can repent of our own golden calves, and can (re-) prepare ourselves for our own coming out of the desert.

On Ash Wednesday itself, separate from the Communion or Eucharistic portion of the worship service, Christians traditionally come forward to receive ashes in the sign of the cross on their forehead (or, in some places, ashes sprinkled over the head). This observance reminds us in a stark and public fashion that we have been made of dust, and to dust we shall return. (Genesis 3:19.) It recollects the Old Testament passages of mourning or penance wherein those who feared the Lord donned “sackcloth” and covered themselves with or sat in ashes (e.g., Esther 4:1; Job 42:6; Daniel 9:3; Jonah 3:4-10).

The observation of this day, including the imposition of ashes, is shared across the Catholic-Protestant divide, and certainly across many Protestant denominations. In the Catholic faith, the ashes are a “sacramtental,” not a Sacrament. So any faithful person wishing to receive them is able to participate. I did this myself as a Presbyterian (PCA) struggling mightily with the claims of the Catholic Church. As a law student in Baltimore, I decided to observe Ash Wednesday (as well as all of Lent that year), to express to God my sorrow for my sins, and to beseech God to guide me into the Truth. That wonderfully morose Wednesday morning, I walked up to the Baltimore Basilica, attended mass, and received ashes from the Archbishop of Baltimore himself. It was a time for quiet prayer and reflection.

When I walked back to campus, one student asked me, “what’s that on your forehead?” Before I could respond, another said, “Oh, it’s Ash Wednesday… [And to me she said,] You’re a better Catholic than I am.” I didn’t want to be a better Catholic than her. (I didn’t even want to be Catholic, although I did want to follow God.) I wanted all the confusion to end, including the confusion created by the hosts of ‘lapsed’ and wayward Catholics.

But having been focused by “to dust you shall return,” and by the spiritual condition of contrition, I somehow saw ‘above’ this would-be-confusing colloquy.1 I knew there was sin, and I knew the Church should be full of sinners. On Shrove Tuesday, her disregard for her own Church would have driven me to great distraction. But fresh from Ash Wednesday mass, by thinking of our shared condition of sinfulness, all things seemed to fit in perspective. I benefitted greatly from participating that Ash Wednesday, and this year, I think you would too.

For the benefits of mutual repentance, and because of our need to focus on what each of us has done or has failed to do to bring unity to Christ’s Church, I ask: sisters and brothers, will you join us in observing Ash Wednesday?2 Please consider this opportunity for solidarity between Catholics and Protestants, between all Christians separated from each other, not living as of One Body. Receive the ashes, and be blessed. The contributors of Called to Communion from the Roman Rite will be there, Lord willing, so hope to be united to you in this special way.

Peace in Christ,
Tom B.

  1. To be clear, the source of the confusion would be this apparent Catholic’s complete lack of intention to observe the fasting and abstinence requirements of Ash Wednesday — she certainly had no interest in attending mass. []
  2. If you want to know where you can go, and at what times, the website can be a big help. Enter your zip code at the very top search bar, and look for special mass times. To be safe, if you see a parish near you, go to its particular website to see if it has Ash Wednesday mass times listed. Also, your local Catholic diocese’s website will provide a local parish directory. If you’re having difficulty, please contact me personally through CtC! []
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  1. [And to me she said,] You’re a better Catholic than I am.” I didn’t want to be a better Catholic than her. (I didn’t even want to be Catholic, although I did want to follow God.) I wanted all the confusion to end, including the confusion created by the hosts of ‘lapsed’ and wayward Catholics.

    Worrying about finding this, and knowing the the Kennedy’s were Catholic, does created a stumbling block.
    The Memento Mori keeps it all in perspective though, so thanks.

  2. I am a cradle Catholic who had been lapsed for over 20 years. I’m on the road to Penance now (after my marriage gets recognized by the Church). Today is my first day observing Ash Wednesday in a long time and never have I felt freer! Christ didn’t save us from good works but saved us into order to do them! It’s truly an honor to be observing this day of Penance and fasting.

  3. Congratulations, Andre.

    Three years ago, I stood exactly where you are now. The freedom I enjoy from obeying Church discipline, partaking of her Sacraments, and standing in the security of the truth she has safeguarded since the days of the Apostles has made these past three years the best of my life.

    God bless you, and welcome home!


  4. Dear Andre,

    Be strong, and do not be afraid. May God’s blessings be on you.

    Peace in Christ,
    Tom B.

  5. Alicia,

    Do not be troubled in a general, unarticulated fashion about things like “the Kennedy’s were Catholic” or any particular scandal to which one could point. Without scandal, something about the Catholic understanding of sin and evil stops making sense.

    Find the way to articulate what about a given scandal seems to conflict with what you expect to see within Catholicism. If you’re able to articulate what you see as a conflict, you’ll be in a good starting point for a helpful inquiry — one, I suspect and hope, that will give you comfort and understanding in due course. I mean that sincerely; this was the approach I took to get my head around the lapsed-Catholic problem.

    Peace in Christ,
    Tom B.

  6. Alicia, it helps me to think about the parable of the wheat and the tares when I think about what to expect in the Church. It is the field and both should be there since our Lord said so.

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