“Remember, O man, that dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.” The priest speaks these words to us today, on this first day of the season of lent, as he smears ashes in the shape of a cross onto our foreheads. These words are meant to remind us of our mortality, the death that will one day claim all our bodies. The ashes themselves are the burned remains of the palms with which we greeted Our Savior into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday the previous year: all that is left of last year’s solemn rejoicing.
This is not meant to plunge us into depression and despair. And let’s be honest, no one likes to think of their death. It’s a truly frightening thought for all of us, who truly are uncertain as to what lays in store for us beyond the grave. We lose everything that we have in this life, all our possessions and our loved ones.
“All things are passing, God alone remains.”
However, death does not take everything from us. The temporal will fall away with our bodies, but our soul and what it contains remains. It is this that truly matters in the long run. What will our souls possess when our time comes to stand before God’s judgment seat? “Only love and fidelity to God are of value for eternity” (Divine Intimacy 268).
“Thus saith the Lord: Be converted to Me with all your heart, in fasting and in weeping and in mourning. And rend your hearts and not your garments” (Joel 2:12-13).
Lent is the time to convert our hearts to God, to contemplate how we wish to live our lives so we can present them to Him on the day we go to meet Him. During this season, it is tradition in most Catholic families to perform different penances. My family, as a whole, gives up all sweets during lent. Any other acts of mortification are up to us to make personally. I have heard of so many different ones: Giving up reading for pleasure, meat (on more than just Fridays), coffee, emailing and social media for pleasure, etc. But no matter how numerous, or how difficult for the individual, these penances all aim toward the same thing: to conform our souls to God.
This is the whole point of Ash Wednesday, and the whole season of lent. We must not think of it as the drudge months of the year, when we have to go about with long faces and wearing sackcloth. Make it instead your own annual spiritual retreat, albeit long, and perform any penances you assign yourself joyfully, in order to draw yourself closer to God, for joy in all things, even in suffering, is the key to true perfection. Keep in your mind that we are mortal, and that death will one day come to all, rich and poor, strong and weak. Yet also dwell upon what lays beyond death, if we are truly good and faithful servants. We are indeed dust, but through His grace, that dust has been elevated above the very angels as adopted children of God.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us!