A headline flashed recently that a young boy in Utah was made to wipe off his Ash Wednesday cross from his forehead. This prompted me to recall an event from a couple of years ago. After Ash Wednesday Mass, I overheard a woman lament the administering of ashes on children. “It’s terrible that we tell our youth that they’re ‘dust.’ It’s morbid. I thought we were a Church focused on life and not death,” she said. I felt the need to engage her. So, I did. She explained to me her issues, and I offered her my take on the matter.
Color me Church Militant, but I don’t consider the application of Ash Wednesday ashes akin to hearing a funeral dirge but rather the trumpet blast signaling to all Catholics to enter the breach of battle once more and with rekindled vigor.
Sure, on the surface, hearing the words “You are dust, and to dust you shall return,” may come across as a mere reminder of our mortality. But that’s barely even scratching the surface! Ash Wednesday and the rest of the Lenten season is less about mortality and more about mortal combat!
Some may construe it as a grim and even potentially nihilistic view, but to borrow from Pope Saint John Paul II referencing Jesus, let’s go back to the beginning.
In Genesis 3: 19, God reminds our first parents—Adam in particular—“you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It may come across as a simple warning that death is indeed the punishment Adam chose through disobedience. However, I offer that this curse, which is echoed on Ash Wednesday, is also and more importantly a commissioning to the Christian Soldier.
Firstly, let’s examine the usage of dust. The consequences of Original Sin weren’t just enumerated to Adam. God started with the serpent, to whom He said just a few verses earlier, “dust you shall eat all the days of your life.” (Genesis 3:14) In this light, dust isn’t just our bodily composition. In a way, it describes our identity. The serpent will devour dust, and we are dust, complete with enmity, heal biting, and head crushing. Here we see the first linkage to mortal combat—humanity’s mortal enemy.
But this linkage doesn’t stop there. Just one chapter earlier, in Genesis 2: 15, “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” Tilling it is easy enough to understand, but what does it mean to “keep it?” Essentially, God wanted Adam to keep it safe—to defend it against anything and everything. Adam is given the opportunity to prove himself when he meets the serpent. Felix Culpa (Oh Happy Fault) for us I guess that both Adam and Eve failed in their duty because where Adam failed, Jesus Christ succeeded.
Our Lord’s success is precisely where we draw our mission as the Church Militant, especially during the Lenten season, where The Church emphasizes the Sacraments of Baptism and Penance. Why Baptism? It’s our entrance into the covenant relationship with God, where the very first question asked in its renewal is: “Do you reject Satan?” Our mission, therefore, is the same from the beginning! We still have to “keep” the garden, except our Eden is The Church, which is the Body and Bride of Christ!
Why Penance? Because every time we choose ourselves over God, we unite ourselves with Adam’s disobedience. It’s an occupational hazard of stepping onto the spiritual battlefield. Thankfully, we have Penance, Reconciliation, Confession, Mercy, or whatever name you choose to describe this Sacrament, and in it we exercise of denying ourselves, picking up our crosses, and following Christ into victory. And no matter how many times we stumble and fail, we can be assured of our salvation knowing that humble perseverance will merit eternal life.
Color me Church Militant because we don’t mourn our faith as Catholics. We celebrate the Eucharist! From the rising of the sun to its setting, we celebrate the Eucharist! And if ashes are traced onto our foreheads, even more than a reminder of our eventual death, it’s a promise of our eternal life in Christ! This Lent and for all the days that follow, let us shake the gates of hell through our sincere repentance and by living the Gospel. Amen!