“YOU ARE DUST!” Those words still ring in my memory! They were the first three words a priest used in a Day of Recollection conference on Ash Wednesday my first year in the seminary. The enthusiasm with which he yelled those words were startling, to say the least. I honestly cannot remember anything else he had to say during his talk, but I will never forget those first three words.
These are the words that the Church’s ministers will be speaking (hopefully in a less startling way) this coming Wednesday as we begin our Lenten journey of 40 days toward Easter. To be exact, the words the Church gives us are these: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It is a sobering reminder to one who receives the ashes, and I can tell you that it is likewise humbling to speak those words to others as I sign them with the ashes, an outward sign of our inner resolution to repentance.
This year, however, will be different from our experience of Ash Wednesdays in the past. We have grown accustomed to adapting certain aspects of our liturgies in the midst of a global pandemic, and Ash Wednesday is no exception. The Holy See has instructed that instead of saying the words for each person, the priest celebrant will say the words only once as he speaks to the entire congregation present. Then, after sanitizing his hands and donning a mask, he will distribute ashes to the faithful. Even that will take on a form unfamiliar to most of us. Instead of marking the forehead of each individual, the instruction is to impose ashes on the top of the head by sprinkling, which requires no touching of the person.
The fact of the matter is that this is actually how ashes have been traditionally imposed, and much of the world still imposes ashes through sprinkling. There is no outward sign that you have attended Mass, as those ashes are hidden from the view of others. After all, does not the Gospel for Ash Wednesday seem to support this:
But when you fast, anoint your head so that you may not appear to others to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.(Matthew 6:17-18)
So instead of seeing this as a negative change, let us see it as an invitation to purify our motives when it comes to the beginning of our Lenten journey. The ashes we receive (and in fact everything we do during Lent) are not for others to see. Sure, Lent is a time for us to commit to living lives of more intentional charity toward others. But Lent is first and foremost about our relationship with the Lord, and our need to turn back to Him. We should be far more concerned about our hearts being open to receiving His healing mercy, a healing that takes place in the hidden relationship we have with Him. When the Father alone sees that hidden desire, He will bless us with the reward of His grace, a grace that will overflow in mercy toward others.