Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent (and one of the best attended holy days of the year). Today, Catholics and many other Christians all around the world will go to Masses or to other services during which their foreheads will be marked in ashes with the sign of the cross.
The use of ashes (obtained from burning the palm fronds from Palm Sunday of the preceding year) symbolizes two things, both of which we remember on this day.
First, ashes are an ancient symbol of repentance; the image in my mind is of Henry IV going to Pope Gregory in Canossa and putting on sackcloth and ashes. Second, the ashes remind us of our mortality, of the reality that one day this earthly existence will end and we will stand before God and called to account for what we did with this precious gift of life God gave us.
The two possible phrases uttered by the priest (or other minister) while making the sign of the cross in ashes on our forehead reflect these two ideas of repentance and immortality. The priest either says, “Repent and believe in the Gospel,” or “Remember that you are dust and into dust you shall return.”
Although framed in different ways, each of the two phrases invites us to conversion. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of this 40-day period of Lent during which we are invited to deeper conversion of our lives, during which we are invited to focus on how our lives can better reflect the Gospel. Let’s use the time wisely.