At noon on Ash Wednesday our church was full of quiet folks, most of whom I’d never seen before. Some I’d seen, but never seen at Mass. And all were so grateful to receive their ashes! A dignified lady knelt at the altar rail in hopeful supplication as I came down the line. “Remember O woman that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return” I said, and smeared a rough black cross on her delicate forehead. She thanked me from the bottom of her heart with a big smile, almost in tears. How marvelous that so many accept this sign of death on their foreheads, because they know it is the sign of life!
Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation and yet worldwide churches are full of people longing for their ashes. Why is that? Because everyone looks toward death. A person may not ever go to Mass, or even believe in much that he can’t see, but he believes in death. Ash Wednesday offers a slim chance that we can beat death at its own game. We can take on a little bit of death, a spiritual vaccination, by saying with the priest: “I am no more than a handful of dust. I choose, at least on this first day of Lent, to die with Christ, in the hope that this bit of dust will be someday see the light of eternal day.”
On Wednesday, all the world seemed to be longing for that little sign of death on their foreheads. We took it gratefully, in the hope that this sign would become our ticket to life. May it ferry us safely over the dark waters of death into endless day.