The Season of Lent begins on a negative note. On Ash Wednesday, when the ashes are distributed the Celebrant says, 'Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.' No wonder Lent for many people is a time of doom and gloom. The very depressing formula sets the tone for the season for many.
Those words always troubled me. While I could tolerate the fact that I am 'dust', it is not flattering to be told that I shall return to dust. Perhaps the author of that once well-known Poem, 'A Psalm of Life', had the same problem and so wrote: 'Dust thou art, to dust returnest was not spoken of the soul.' The alternative formula tries to be positive but is not much better: 'Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.'
I invite us to approach this Lent as time to 'remember' who we are in the sight of God rather than what we are. To 'remember' is a preoccupation of most religious believers and Bible personalities. Even God is said to 'remember' (Genesis 19:29). God remembers Abraham. The Patriarchs and Prophets continually call on the People to 'remember'. Lent is the Church's call to us to remember the relationship God established with us, to evaluate that relationship and do what is necessary to deepen it.
In remembering that we are dust and to dust we shall return, we are not to stop there. We are to move on so that we too can share in the victory of life over the finality of death. I feel that it would be expedient if the Ash Wednesday rite could now read: 'Remember you are dust and to dust you will return, so turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.'
The reference to dust, though saying that we are 'earthy' and will return to the earth by way of burial, is incomplete. The very creation story, though saying that we are made from the soil, also says that God breathed into the 'earthy being' the breath of life, and the being became a living soul (cf. Genesis 2:7). We are therefore 'earthy' but also 'divine', for the very breath we breathe is God's.
Lent is therefore to be taken not as a period of doom and gloom, but as a journey in which we gratefully strive to deepen our relationship with our God. Many people continue to identify more with Good Friday than Easter, which shows that the victory of Easter is still not yet fully grasped. The Season of Lent and Easter is meant to call to our minds that our sinfulness, caused more often than not because of 'earthiness', need not have the final say in our relationship with God. God has already won the victory for us over the consequence of sin which is death.
As we enter into the season therefore, let us in 'remembering' use the forty days to work on our relationship with our God. Let us do so through meaningful prayer and positive sacrifice. I say positive sacrifice because people tend to see sacrifice as a negative or gloomy exercise. Gerald Vann O.P., in his book The Son's Course, writes:
we think of [sacrifice] as something painful, repulsive, something which has to be done but which we do not pretend to like; we forget the idea of a sacrificium laudis, a sacrifice of praise and joy ... Who has ever found it repulsive to make sacrifices for someone he loves deeply?
Therefore sacrifice in this case should be joyful and meaningful, because it is entering more deeply into Jesus' dying and rising. So let us in remembering we are dust, divine dust, graced clay, strive to deepen our relationship with our Maker through prayer and joyful sacrifice so that, come Easter, we shall have moved on to heartily sing, 'Alleluia, he lives and so will we. Alleluia.'