“Dust Thou Art and Into Dust Thou Shalt Return
Ashes represent the outward destruction of the material world, and show the endless decomposition of all bodies when detached from the source of organization and life. They are, therefore, the symbol of earthly decay and death, and remind us forcibly of the disorganization of bodily life; in other words, of death itself. But death is the wages of sin, and at the same time the symbol of sin’s penalties, and as such is calculated to warn us sternly that we should endeavor to regain true life by a return to God over the path of sincere repentance.
The Church blesses ashes and distributes them on the heads of the faithful on Ash Wednesday. Thus she is pleased, by this reminder of approaching and certain death, to incite us to penance, and to awake within us a spirit of humility and self-abasement, without which no penance can be real and pleasing to God. Hence the priest says, while giving the ashes,” Remember, man, thou art but dust, and into dust thou shalt return.”
The Church offers this prayer for each one of us as the priest traces a black cross on our foreheads with the ashes from burnt palm branches. I wonder how often we reflect, especially when we are in good health and are busy with many good works, that a day will come, perhaps very soon, when we will die and our bodies will be placed in a cold casket six feet under the lush green grass in the local Catholic cemetery. I should ask myself now, “Where will I be then?”
As Catholics we should think about death each day, since it is included in many of our prayers. The Mass itself is a memorial and a re-presentation of the death of Jesus. A crucifix reminds us of the death of Christ. In the Liturgy of the Hours we are constantly reminded of the death of the Lord, of the death of the wicked, and of our own certain death. The Church, making use of the Psalms, reminds us over and over again that our life is fragile and fleeting, and that it will disappear like the morning mist.
Man naturally fears death. He knows it is certain, but he does not like to think about it. Contemporary American culture trivializes death in the media because it does not want to confront the awesome reality of death. It is strange, is it not? Scores of murders and deaths are shown on TV each day, but rarely, if ever, is the reality of death given serious treatment.
Our modern culture tries to create illusions of immortality. We see this in film and TV stars, in sports heroes, in popular politicians. But where are they now? Picking just a few well-known names at random, we can ask: where are Abraham Lincoln, John Wayne, FDR, Marilyn Monroe, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan, and all the rest who have gone before us? During their lifetimes they were thought to be important persons. Now they are gone, and most people pay little or no attention to them.
What a cruel fate awaits rich, powerful and famous men and women who appear to be something but who, whether sooner or later, are swallowed up by the jaws of death. Many of them do not seem to know that death is the fruit of sin, that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). And we Catholics—priests, religious and laity—are we any different? Do we heed the warnings of the Bible and the teaching of the Church that death is the punishment for sin—the sin of our first parents, Adam and Eve, and our own personal sins? Daily the Church urges us to repentance and conversion of heart, especially during Lent. Do we listen and heed her motherly warnings?
Just think about your relatives and friends who have died during the past few years. Where are they now? The Church teaches infallibly that there are only three possibilities right now before the Second Coming of Christ: purgatory, heaven and hell. Do you ever think seriously about the certain fact that you will be with those deceased friends and relatives one future day—perhaps sooner than you think? Do you pray for them and gain indulgences for them in case they are in purgatory?
The closer one comes to God in love and the more one submits himself to the will of God, the more one becomes like God in holiness, and the less fear one feels in the face of death. Actually, many of the saints have longed to die, to be dissolved that they might be united eternally with Christ. St. Paul said, “For me to live is Christ, to die is gain…. My desire is to depart and to be with Christ” (Phil 1:21-23). A daily awareness that we shall soon be judged by the glorified Christ for our words and deeds injects humility into our lives, and spurs us on to a more intense practice of the love of God and neighbor.