“Remember man! Remember woman! You are dust, and unto dust you shall return!”
Stern, sober, chilling? Yes!
Oppressive, pessimistic, dreary? No!
True, liberating, challenging? Yes!
Today, Ash Wednesday, literally millions of Christians – 50,000 at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral aone – will hear this exhortation from the Bible as they begin the forty day journey of prayer, sacrifice, and charity to Easter. You’ll notice them as they show up at work, school, shopping, with a smudge of dust, or ashes, on their forehead,
What’s it all about? A memory comes to mind.
Couple years ago, I visited a dying man at the renowned Calvary Hospital. I had known him as a crusty, salty, influential gentleman, who was also somewhat unfair in his business practices, stingy with his money, unfaithful in his marriage, at odds with his family, and lax in his own Catholic religion. But, now he was close to death, and had asked to see me. I took a deep breath, whispered a prayer, and went into the room.
There I was shocked – pleasantly – to see him and his wife holding hands, his estranged sister close to him by the bed, and his children close around. Through the oxygen mask I could see him, clearly weak, with a smile on his face.
“Cardinal, I’m dying. They tell me I could go anytime. What a blessing to know the end is near. I need God’s grace and mercy, because I haven’t thought that much of Him or His commandments most of my life. Now I’ve asked my wife to forgive me, I’ve apologized to my sister and kids, who I’ve neglected and mistreated all these years, and my lawyers just left after helping me give the millions I’ve selfishly horded away to those that need it. I’ve never felt freer or more at peace. Could you pray that God forgives me, too?”
Could I ever! I emptied the room so I could hear his confession; I called them back in as I anointed him and commended his soul to Jesus, and my smile was as big as his.
While not the day itself, that event was Ash Wednesday for him. He became conscious that he had an eternal destiny, that he was in a passover from this life to eternity, that he was returning to dust.The popular saying goes, “Live today as if it is the first day of the rest of your life.” Not bad…
Equally wise is the exhortation of Ash Wednesday: “Live today as if it’s the last day of your earthly life, and tomorrow the first of eternal life.”
So for forty days, Lent invites us to think more of our soul – – meant to live forever – – than our own body – – which will turn to dust.
A blessed Lent!