Remember that you are dust and unto dust you will return. With these words, I rubbed ashes on a number of foreheads today at Mass as we celebrated the beginning of the great season of Lent.
It is interesting: the book of Genesis tells us that God made the first man from the dust, or dirt, of the earth. But today we use not ordinary dirt, but rather ashes, when we remind ourselves and others of the fact that this body of ours is mortal and is going to die one of these days.
Why ashes? Because ashes are the result of a fire. When you burn a piece of wood in a fireplace, sooner or later the fire consumes the wood totally and then goes out. And what you find there is a pile of cold, usually gray, ashes. Now, life is something like fire; it is warm, it moves and breathes and grows. But then, when it finally dies, what is left — a dead body — is similar to dead ashes in the fireplace when the fire has gone out. That’s why we so often speak of “human ashes.” We say things like, “the ashes of our first President are buried at Mount Vernon; the ashes of many great people are enshrined in Westminster Abbey.” There is a wonderfully succinct saying of the ancient Latins: “Homo: humus; fama:fumus; finis:cinis.” It means: man is dirt, fame is smoke, and our end is ashes.
But of course, that has to do only with the body. The fire has gone out in the body of the dead, but the fire is very much alive apart from the body, and if the person died in union with God, he will live with God forever. So what the Church really means when she tells us that we are dust and rubs ashes in our faces is that the body is going to decompose one of these days, and it behooves us to USE the body in such a way as to insure the salvation of the soul.
So remember: that body of yours which you feed well and take care of medically, and dress stylishly but comfortably, and try to beautify with cosmetics or diets or even surgery, and which young people these days are trying to make more unique with tattoos or piercings—that body one day will be just a handful of dust or ashes. But the soul that is keeping that body alive today will depart from it, and then will continue to exist, either with God or apart from Him, forever. It’s up to us. Thank you for seeking God’s truth, God Bless you. Father Victor Brown, O.P.
Note: This message was composed some years ago.