Dust and ashes are signature symbols of Lent, the 40-day liturgical season of prayer, reflection and discipline intended to open us more fully to God’s redeeming and healing presence.
On Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, blessed ashes are spread on our foreheads in the form of a cross ~ signifying the penitential nature of Lent. Those ashes, which come from the burning plam branches used on the previous Passion Sunday, are spread by the priest as he says the somber words of Genesis 3:19, “You are dust and will return to dust,” or the clear admonition of Mark 1:15, “Turn from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”
Ashes denote traditional Lenten goals that we are encouraged to strive for in our relationship with God and with others ~ for repentance and sorrow for sin and spiritual sloth; for humility in the face of God’s greatness; for awareness of our human weakness, fragility and mortality; for “good grief” and appropriate mourning for all the inevitable losses in our lives. To show that he was at the end of his rope and could do nothing else but throw himself on the mercy of God, Job sat on the ash heap and spread ashes over his head (Job 42:6;30:19). The psalmist even declares, “I eat ashes like bread…” (Psalm 102:10). Jesus cited the need “to repent in sackcloth and ashes” (Mt. 11:21).
We may be tempted to shy away from the Lenten symbolism of dust and ashes because it seems too negative. Instead, we would be wise to open our minds and hearts to what the Church offers us each year as a healthy dose of realism about God and God’s mercy, and about ourselves and human life.
Time to Wake Up and Get Out of the Hot Water!
The old story of the frog being put into a pot of warm water is surely a useful metaphor for Lent. The water was gradually heated until it boiled, but the frog had grown so accustomed to the slowly rising heat that it failed to detect the severe threat of the soon-to-be-boiling water. The doomed frog adjusted well to its environment ~ only too well for its own ultimate good!
We are waist ~ if not neck-deep in a permissive and relativistic culture that in many matters of morality and spiritually threatens great harm to us. How many harmful adjustments to the culture are we making? Lent provides an opportunity for us to step back and see that threatening environment, and earnestly to seek God’s help that we need to get us out of the hot water and begin restoring our spiritual well-being.
O God of salvation, you are quick with your mercy and steadfast with your love. As we begin Lent, help us to pray with ardor, fast with a hunger for you, and be generous with those in need. May our Lenten practices turn us from evil and instill in us a love for justice. We pray through Jesus Christ our Saviour and Brother. Amen.
Ash Wednesday and Lent 2004 Sunday Mass Readings ~ Year C
Source: You Are Dust Lent Bulletin Insert was written by James E. Adams (Creative Communications for the Parish ~ www.creativecommunications).