“Remember, O man, that dust thou art”
We begin in ashes. We call this day Ash Wednesday for while we are reminded that we are but dust, it is ashes which are placed on our foreheads on this day. The dust recalls us to our origins. We are the dust into which God has breathed his life-giving spirit. But the greater emphasis of this day lies in the ashes, as it were, and not in the dust. The ashes are the ashes of repentance.
The ashes are made from burning last year’s palm crosses. “Fire ever doth aspire,/And makes all like itself, turns all to fire,/ But ends in ashes” the poet John Donne puts it in a poem celebrating love, actually a marriage. As he suggests, love is unlike fire that ends in ashes; there is something more. “Love’s strong arts” make one, create unity and life, where before there was division and separation and death. All love in the Christian understanding of things finds its ultimate meaning in the love of God.
The ashes of Ash Wednesday mark not an ending but a new beginning, a renewal in love. Lent is the pilgrimage of love. That pilgrimage is a renewal and a perfecting in love. That love is the perfecting grace of Christ, the divine love incarnate who goes the way of our imperfect loves to make perfect our loves. There must be in us the continual purgation and purification of our loves. They are purged and purified in the passion of Christ, in the pilgrimage of his perfect love for us. That is the intent of Lent and the significance of beginning in ashes. It is wanted that that perfect love should move in us. Our loves are to undergo a purgation and a purification through “Love divine, all loves excelling.”
We are called to repentance. There is to be in us the awareness of our imperfect loves. But the ashes do not mark an ending but a beginning again with a twofold emphasis. There is conversion from sin and there is contrition for sin. Fire ends in ashes but love – God’s love in us – is the greater fire which makes something even out of the ashes of our lives. The ashes of repentance are about divine love stirring up our hearts and minds, stirring up our souls and bodies to return again to him from whom we have turned away. We are to arise from the ashes in the renewal of faith, hope and love.