From ToTheSource, a bit late for Ash Wednesday, but pertinent nonetheless…:
The first truth. You live in a culture that celebrates perpetual youth, a culture that feverishly tries to wring immortality from mortality. You will hear, when the ashes are smeared, “Remember, O man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” Death awaits us all. No one escapes, no matter what miracles of modern medicine temporarily grant reprieve. All must face death because death will face us.
The second truth. The reminder that we are made of dust takes us back to Genesis, and the truth accepted by faith that we are made from dust, and that it is only by the breath of God that this dust has life. Scientists may study the chemical details of the dust, its origin in the cosmic dust of ancient stars, the physical laws that define the dust, but life itself, especially human life will always remain a mystery. The attempt by materialist-minded scientists to reduce human beings to the chemical reactions and physical laws of the dust means that there is neither life nor death, but only the endless rearrangement of dust. But life is real, and as the first truth proclaims, death is real
The third truth, again from Genesis. Death was not meant to be. Returning to dust, was the punishment for sin. You may, then, hear an alternate line as the ashes are smeared on your forehead. “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” And that is the third truth: there is sin, and we each are sinners. Ashes are not smeared on circumstances. Ashes are not smeared on heredity. Ashes are not smeared on society. Ashes are not smeared on the state. Ashes are smeared on you; ashes are smeared on me; and we are each told, “YOU turn away from sin, and YOU be faithful to the Gospel.” No amount of clever economic arrangements, no tricks of social engineering, no promethean manipulation of the genes, no reconstruction of the political order will ever fix the one problem that causes or intensifies every ill borne forth by economics, society, biology, and politics—sin.
The fourth truth. Repentance is not cheaply bought for it was dearly won. The cross of ashes reminds us that God himself faced death, a horribly excruciating death, and asked all those who truly wanted “to be faithful to the Gospel” to pick up their crosses and follow him. Ash Wednesday is only the beginning of Lent, the first day of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving that stretches for the entire forty days that Christ was in the desert. These are all quite revolutionary acts, especially in our culture, which is very nearly defined by the celebration of the seven deadly sins.
Fast from lust. Turn off the computer, turn off the television, regain holy custody of your eyes and imagination. Sloth is the opposite of the chastity.
Fast from gluttony. Eat simply and sparingly, and give all the money (all those Star-bucks) you save to the poor. Sloth is the opposite of temperance.
Fast from avarice. Work diligently, but realize that being a holy father and husband, wife and mother, son and daughter of God is your first and by far most important vocation. If you fail in these, your economic success will be worth less than nothing when you have to face the great equalizer of rich and poor alike, death. For then you will be asked, “Did you lay up treasures on earth, or did you lay up treasures in heaven—let’s have a look at the books, shall we?” Avarice is the opposite of true economy, charity, and moderation in regard to the desire for temporal goods.
Fast from sloth. Sloth is the sin of people who remain busy doing lesser things in order to avoid avidly pursuing greater goods. Sloth is continually checking email or the cell phone rather than talking to your own family. Sloth is watching inane television or Youtube videos rather than reading the Bible, praying, serving your wife, husband, or children. Sloth is immersing yourself in the lives of Hollywood idols rather than the lives of holy men and women. Sloth is the finding of comfort only in distraction and amusement. Sloth is the opposite of holy zeal.
Fast from wrath. Impatience is the origin of most anger, the spark from which the consuming flame of wrath grows; be patient as God is patient with you, for patience is the opposite of wrath. Always remember that the irritating habits of others are as invisible to them as yours are to you, that your hidden sins are just as destructive to those around you as the obvious sins of others are to those around them, and that Jesus himself regarded anger as connected to murder, and therefore prohibited both.
Fast from envy. Envy is not just casting a longing eye at another’s goods or good fortune; envy begrudges God’s gifts to others, so much so, that the envious rejoice in the destruction or downfall of the gifted one. For the next forty days embrace the opposite of envy: be content with exactly what you have, and praise God for and rejoice in every gift you find in others.
Fast from pride. Pride is the deadliest of the seven deadly sins, the sin of Satan himself. It is the great opposite of the greatest of virtues, humility, the recognition of our ultimate smallness, of the partiality of all our dearest opinions, of the ultimate foolishness all human wisdom and the ultimate vanity of all human achievements as compared to the wisdom of God manifest in creation and the eternal glory of God which he offers to share with us through the most humiliating death of his own Son.
The fifth truth. When you submit to having ashes smeared on your forehead, you are saying to all who see them: “I am a Christian first. My ultimate citizenship is not to this state, to this government, to this time, to any City of Man, but to the City of God, a kingdom not of this world. My ultimate allegiance lies elsewhere. If the state permits what God condemns, I will not do it. If the state commands what God condemns I will not do it.” If we blend in with the culture, and it is a culture of death, then we embrace ashes but no hope. If we willingly receive these ashes, then we are marked out for a hope that is not of this world and a culture of life defined by it. These ashes mark you out as a revolutionary. Pray for the courage to live like one.
The sixth truth. When you receive these ashes, and wear them so visibly into the public square, you are boldly reminding the state that from the beginning of recorded time we see nations come and go but the church remains. Egypt. Assyria. Babylonia. Greece. Rome. The Constantinian Empire. The Carolingian Empire. The Ottonian Empire. Spain. France. Germany. Britain. And yes, the United States. They come and go. A new one rises from the dust created by the collapse of the one before, and in turn falls into the dust to make way for the one to come. No political regime is eternal. How could they be, if man himself must return to the dust? So the ashes on our forehead say to the state, any state: “You too shall return to the dust. Let this ashen cross remind you that, while nations rise and fall, the church has remained these two thousand years, and we are in every nation of the world, in them but not of them. And when you are gone to dust, as with all the other nations, the church will still be here.”
The seventh truth. The dark ashen cross is the portal to Easter. There is light at the end of the forty-day tunnel, and at the end of the tunnel we are commanded to put away all Lenten fasting and feast, to rejoice and celebrate, not in debauchery but in holiness and gratitude. But even here, we must always remember: there is no resurrection without the crucifixion; there is no Easter without Lent. And so next year we will hear again, “Remember, O man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” And we shall have Ash Wednesdays until we finally do return to dust, and then, so we hope and pray, enter into the eternal Easter.