Wednesday, February 17, 2021
Today we observe Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, the time in the Christian calendar that commemorates the 40 days Jesus spent being tempted by Satan in the desert. The ashes sprinkled on our foreheads remind us that we are mortal: we are dust, and to dust we shall return. As Pope Francis explained last year, though, “we are dust loved by God,” and the ashes are:
a reminder of the direction of our existence: a passage from dust to life. We are dust, earth, clay, but if we allow ourselves to be shaped by the hands of God, we become something wondrous. More often than not, though, especially at times of difficulty and loneliness, we only see our dust! But the Lord encourages us: in his eyes, our littleness is of infinite value. So let us take heart: we were born to be loved; we were born to be children of God. [Lent is thus] a time of grace, a time for letting God gaze upon us with love and in this way change our lives. We were put in this world to go from ashes to life. So let us not turn our hopes and God’s dream for us into powder and ashes. . . . Ashes are sprinkled on our heads so that the fire of love can be kindled in our hearts. . . . Our earthly possessions will prove useless, dust that scatters, but the love we share – in our families, at work, in the Church and in the world – will save us, for it will endure forever.
This year, it may seem like the last thing we need is a reminder of our mortality. Life’s fragility has probably not been far from any of our thoughts since the pandemic upended our world one year ago. The temptation to feign blissful ignorance of our mortality may sound pretty refreshing right about now. And it’s a temptation that may be within sight as vaccines roll out and something closer to "normalcy" looms over the horizon.
But, as Ash Wednesday reminds us, disregard of our mortality is not so blissful, and it is not without cost. As vaccinations become more widespread, I hope I don’t trade anxiety about my at-risk loved ones for complacency about each day’s significance. Pre-pandemic, I was adept at distracting myself from big questions with a never-ending blur of activities. While Ash Wednesday is not intended as an impetus to wallow in the stark fact of life’s brevity, it is an invitation to reflect: in light of my mortality, how shall I then live?
We do not achieve significance through impressive accomplishments; we honor our significance by living as though we truly believe that the “littleness” of each person we encounter is “of infinite value.” As we enter Lent, what would it look like for “the fire of love” to “be kindled in our hearts?” And what is the “something wondrous” we were called – indeed created – to become?