Ash Wednesday and Good Friday liturgies are among the most attended celebrations in the Church calendar. That shows how much Catholics gravitate to both days, with their stark and simple beauty and the ashes on our foreheads and Good Friday’s veneration of the cross. Both days remind us of our mortality and the reality of suffering in every human life.
The ashes that are placed on our foreheads today (unless COVID eliminates that ritual) 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 use 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.” Perhaps pastors will find creative ways to stand on the steps outside the parish church and distribute ashes this year.
Our human mortality is the great equalizer for all of us, regardless of talent or looks or possessions or superiority. It doesn’t matter who you are or how much wealth, intelligence or power you have, death will eventually come to all of us.
What is to be gained by having a building named after you? Does that impressive tombstone help you to stay alive for a few more years? Will that Order of Canada pin extend your life?
I have had two assignments to our Jesuit community here in Pickering. I’m in a house just a stone’s throw from the infirmary, where permanent residents will eventually die.
I’ve watched simple Brothers who did physical labour all their active life and I have watched astoundingly intellectual Jesuits whose bookshelves included the books they authored or edited or translated. I’ve watched company men and misfits. All died! There was no escape. The ashes today remind us of that.
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! Elon Musk (currently the richest person on the planet) will die. He may try to find a way to cure death. It won’t work!
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 it’s not a bad practice to use this Lent to live each day as if it’s the last day we have on earth. 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.”