Indian Archbishop of Hyderabad Thumma Bala marks the symbol of the cross with ash on the forehead of a nun during an Ash Wednesday service at St. Mary's Basilica in Secunderabad, the twin city of Hyderabad, on Feb. 14, 2018. (Photo by Noah Seelam/AFP)
Those who distribute ashes on Ash Wednesday have an option regarding the words used while sprinkling ashes on people's heads or smearing them on their brows.
One can say, "Repent, and believe in the gospel," using the first words of Jesus in Mark's Gospel, 1:15. This is a recent innovation in the liturgy of the day. In the liturgical books, this option is listed first, presumably earning pride of place by being Jesus' own summation of his message.
The other, traditional, saying is, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return," based on Genesis 3:19.
I have never been able to decide which form to use, so I alternate them as people approach me, saying them loudly enough that the person I am "ashing" and the one behind him or her can hear both versions. I figure that since I cannot make up my mind, I should give the congregants the same confusion. Or, the same opportunity to reflect upon the double message of the day and the Lenten season that starts with it.
While we tend to think of Lent as a time of penance, ("What are you giving up for Lent?"), its origin and basic meaning are as a period of intensive final preparation for the elect who will be baptized at the Easter Vigil.
In line with that, back in the days before the present form of celebrating the sacrament of Penance was developed and repentant sinners had to do public penance in sackcloth and ashes before being restored to the community by the bishop, the period before Easter was their time to prepare to reenter full communion. Their situation was similar to that of the catechumens.
Over time, Lent became more than a season for outsiders wanting to come in or come back. Those of us who are already members of the community and who have not been excommunicated share the need of catechumens and penitents to prepare ourselves for the renewal of our baptismal commitment in the Easter liturgy. We must also prepare ourselves to worthily welcome our new sisters and brothers baptized at Easter. So, we spend our Lent preparing for the sacrament of Penance in Holy Week.
Part of that preparation is repentance. Though we may not have become totally alienated from the church community, we have done things that betray our baptismal commitment to live as Christ for the world. The church and the world have both suffered in that.
Repentance is more than feelings of guilt. The Greek word in Mark's Gospel, metanoeite (repent, change your mind) means to change direction. So, repentance must be a more radical change in our lives than merely admitting we've been bad boys and girls.
We must look closely at the direction our lives are taking, at the social, psychological, cultural, economic and other influences that draw us away from our vocation as Christians. And then, we must turn from them.
That is easier said than done. In fact, we cannot do it. We need the grace of God, a grace we embrace by believing the gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news that God forgives sin. With the encouragement of that grace can we face our sin and all that encourage and enable it. Only with that grace can we turn from them.
And so, the first message of Lent as we prepare to renew our baptismal commitment is, "Repent and believe the gospel." Believe the good news that your sin can be forgiven, that you can indeed turn from all that would draw you from God because in believing you accept God's grace to do so.
And then, there is the dust. The ashes and the reminder that our inevitable end is obliteration are often taken to be a reminder of the futility of life, a call to renounce the impermanent things of this life for the sake of eternity.
But, that is not the only way to hear the words, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
The 17th-century English poet Andrew Marvel wrote the poem "To His Coy Mistress" to convince a reluctant woman to accede to his amorous advances. "Had we but world enough, and time, this coyness, Lady, were no crime. ... But at my back I always hear time's winged chariot hurrying near." More prosaically put, "Sweetie, we don't have time to delay."
For a Christian, that is the message of the ashes. The church is saying to me, to you, "Sweetie, we don't have time to delay." We will return to dust, so we cannot put off either our repentance or the fulfillment of our vocation to show Christ to the world. That mission is too urgent to allow delay. My time is short, so I had better get moving.
Father William Grimm, MM, is publisher of ucanews.com and is based in Tokyo.