By Fr Jim Tucker, generation X, priest of the Diocese of Arlington, in Northern Virginia.
Receiving the ashes today at the beginning of the season of Lent calls to mind two things. The use of ashes, which goes back to the Old Testament, symbolizes the contrition and humility of the sinner before the all-just God. Like the penitents of old, we "put on sack-cloth and ashes" as a sign of repentance for the evil we have done.
The second thing the ashes call to mind is a verse from Genesis: In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. It is this verse that we cite as we impose the ashes upon the believers' heads, "Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return." Our lives pass in an instant, and soon the grave will dissolve our bodies into the ash and dust from which we were formed.
These two ideas go together as we enter this season of penance: now is the moment for conversion, now is the acceptable time. Not tomorrow, not next year. Today. We have a way of putting off the changes we know we must make, like St Augustine who in his youth had prayed, "Lord, make me chaste, but not just yet." The problem is, of course, that none of us knows how long we have to repent.
So, the Lord has given us this day to turn from our sins and convert to Him. While we still have our life, we repent of our lies and dishonesty. We repent of our adultery and impurities. We repent of our rash judgment and uncharity. We repent of our violence and anger. We repent of our faithlessness and ingratitude. We take up the sign of the ashes, and ask the Lord to deliver us from the punishment we so rightly deserve. This is what Ash Wednesday means, and it sets the tone for the next forty days.
"Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return."