Have you ever wondered about the source of the ashes that we receive on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday? Nowadays, most parishes probably order them from religious goods suppliers. But I'm sure there are still a few parishes and communities that produce them the old-fashioned way. When I was a Jesuit novice in Guelph, Ontario in the late 1970s, the community sacristan was an old Jesuit Brother named Brother Eugene McLaren.
Truly a unique character, Brother Gene would make an excellent subject for a posting on IgNation. Perhaps the blog master can convince someone to write about him. Just after Easter each year, Brother Gene would gather up the unused palms from Palm Sunday. He'd bring them outside and burn them in a tin can he kept for that purpose. Then, after the ashes cooled off, he'd place them in a container and store them in the sacristy for the next Ash Wednesday. That's where our ashes come from. I've always loved that image. I wrote a posting on this blog last Ash Wednesday in which I used that image as an illustration of the cyclic dimension to the liturgical celebrations of the Church.
So, that's where they come from. But why do we wear them? Many pastors will tell you that the most crowded Masses and services in parishes are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. I think that ties in to our basic human understanding of our mortality and the reality of suffering in our lives. The ashes that are placed on our foreheads are a celebration and reminder of our finality, and a sign of mourning and repentance to God. One of the formulae that the priest may say as he places the ashes on our foreheads is from the Book of Genesis: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
Our human mortality is the great equalizer. It doesn't matter who you are or how much wealth, intelligence or power you have, death will eventually come to all of us. I was so struck by the words of Steven Jobs (of Apple fame) as he faced his own imminent death:
“Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me. Going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful … that’s what matters to me. Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
Jobs shows a mature attitude in the face of his mortality. There are people who do all they can to prolong their lives, to look younger, or even try to avoid death. It hasn't worked yet! Given that we will eventually die, it becomes important to ask how we will live. There are people who try to live each day as if it will be their final day on earth. There are even monks who sleep each night in a coffin, to serve precisely as a reminder of the reality of death. Yes, some vampires sleep in coffins as well, but that's a different story.
We don't have to do that, but it's not a bad idea to live each day as if it's our final day. What would I choose to do? What would my attitude be? How would I treat my family, friends, co-workers and strangers? Would my priorities be different than usual? What fights would I choose to avoid? I'd say that using this Lent to live each day as if it's the last day is a fairly good practice. Let’s draw strength from this reminder from Dorothy Day. “We must live this life now. Death changes nothing. If we do not learn to enjoy God now we never will. If we do not learn to praise Him and rejoice in Him now, we never will.”