The apparition and usage of ashes in the liturgy that marks the beginning of lent is a powerful sign. It serves as a damper that serves to remind us of the apparent futility of life; it reminds us of our own mortality, of the vanity of everything that we cherish here and now, and of the stark reality that everything that we see and touch will mean nothing to us when we descend into the silence of the grave. All of this is brought home to us when we hear the ceremonial words that accompany the gesture of the ashes’ application on our heads: Memento homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris. Remember, o man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.
The great theologian Romano Guardini, reflecting on the significance of the ashes says that these signify man’s overthrow by time. “Our own swift passage, our’s and not someone else’s, ours, mine. When at the beginning of Lent the priest takes the burnt residue of the green branches of the last Palm Sunday and inscribes with it on my forehead the sign of the cross, it is to remind me of my death” (Guardini, Sacred Signs).
In a way, the ashes on my forehead signify the emptiness of all my earthly hopes, the prompt expiration date of everything that has held my interest until now: riches, titles, and possessions. The time will come—and it may come sooner than I expect it—that I would have to face the most inevitable fact of my existence: my mortality, my death, my apparent annihilation.
But the ashes also point to my failures as well; failures rooted on my personal defects, which are further proof of the fact that I am not sufficient unto myself. The ashes are an accusation that point to me, me who have tried to built monuments to my ego, thinking that they would stand for everyone to see, and that they would last to the admiration of future generations. The ashes indicate the fact that the sooner the breath of life leaves my lungs, everything that I have raised by myself and for myself will immediately crumble into ash.
Lent is a time to consider many things in our life, reestablish our priorities, rediscover the things that really matter, those that really last. Sifting through the ashes of our sins, of our vanity and pride, we are led to discover that that which is most essential is the one that we have destroyed in the first place: our relationships. The bonds that we have established in our daily life, these are the most important.
The grace of the season of Lent ought to lead us to discover how prompt we have been in disregarding the most important of these relationships: the one that we have with our Lord. The manner how we relate with him affects the way we relate with the rest of creation. Sifting through Lenten ashes, we realize that it is also in our power—aided by God’s merciful grace—to reestablish this relationship, broken through sin, which is an offense against the love of God.
This is an important realization, for a disjointed relationship with God gives for a disjointed relationship with others: those whom I love, those whom I work with, those whom I serve. Even the way we deal with nature is affected with the way we address God.
Let the ashes talk to you at the start of this season of Lent. But aside from these things, the ashes will tell you as well that a life reconciled with God does not end in futility. The Lenten liturgy of the Church starts with ashes, in order to end with the blaze of the light that issues from the Paschal Candle, symbolic of the risen Christ. Lent tells us that sin and separation from God does not need to have the last word in our lives.
As we start the season of Lent, we begin by acknowledging our sinfulness; we acknowledge our need for God and his mercy; drawing to him in the sacrament of reconciliation we are healed of our sins. Partaking of his Body and Blood in the Eucharist we are strengthened to love as God loves. In this way, as Lent progresses, we move from strength to strength, we begin to know ourselves more as children of a God who loves, who allows himself to be called Father by us, something made possible by the generosity of Christ on the Cross.
In the season of Lent, we start with ashes; aided by the Lord’s grace, we end our long journey in the blaze of Easter light. In the early centuries, Christians have likened our Lord to the phoenix, that mythical bird who immolates himself on a burning pyre. The bird dies, only to rise from the ashes, more glorious than before. For the ancients, the phoenix is the symbol of immortality.