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Ash Wednesday

By Sr. Doreen, SSJD


We begin our journey to Easter with the sign of ashes, an ancient sign speaking of the frailty and uncertainty of human life … Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return (Book of Alternative Services p.282)

“And remember, dust you are splendor – that within this frail envelope of our body is enclosed a great marvel” (Father Raoul Plus, a Jesuit from his book ‘Dust, Remember Thou Art Splendor’).

It seems to me that one of the treasures of Ash Wednesday as we begin our journey through Lent is the opportunity we are given to discover our own goodness, our own possibility for splendor.  I have found the Macrina Weidekehr in her book “A Tree Full of Angels” has helped me along this journey in writing: “You are a dwelling place for the Source of All Life.  You are an offspring of the One who said, “I Am who I Am.”  If the One who gave you birth lives within you, surely you can find some resources there in your sacred Centre.  An expert lives within you.  An expert breathes out of  you … your life is entwined with God – frail dust, remember, you are splendor.”

I believe that we have riches that we refuse to own – and today and through our journey in Lent, it is an opportunity to ponder our littleness and our greatness; our frailty and our splendor, and to uncover or open ourselves to accept those riches.  Always our goodness and our potential loom large under God’s gaze.   This is an opportunity to claim our inheritance!

Thomas Merton also makes loving reference to this marvel when he says:  “Make ready for the Christ, whose smile, like lightning, sets free the songs of everlasting glory that now sleeps in your paper flesh like dynamite.”

So it seems to me worth pondering today on Ash Wednesday these thoughts: our paper flesh is our littleness, our frailty.  The dynamite is our greatness, our splendor.  We must not forget our splendor – in the frailty and ashes, in the dust lies the possibility of splendor, glory, and holiness, the call to be saints!  So often it is like wealth, hidden away.  It is ours to uncover today and during Lent.

It is God’s love and great compassion that calls to us, that uncovers and rescues us from the dust that settles on our splendor.  During Lent we journey through the dust to see the face of the risen Christ and our own face of glory.  When we can give over our frailty to God, I believe that we have created a place of splendor within the depths of our being.

Macrina Wiederkehr wrote the following poem that sets the stage for pondering Ash Wednesday and begins the journey through Lent:

“O frail and glorious creature whoever you are,
 cherish this truth: there are hints of glory in your being,
seeds of splendor, traces of holiness.
To be divinized is your destiny.
Your original union yearns for a place in your life.

Walk gently, then, with your frailty.
Allow it to bless you. 
It will not cripple you unless you run from it.
Embrace it instead,
carry it as one carries the cherished secret
of a great wealth
Hidden away in a holy, eternal space
like a treasure hidden in a field.
That’s you!  You fragile, noble being. 
Yes there are whispers of greatness in the frail envelope of your being.

The dust of the Ash Wednesdays of your life is tinged with the glory of your Easters.
Your tomb is a womb of life, you are hidden with Christ in God.
The dust of your life fades into glory.
O frail and glorious creature
from the crib to the cross to be divinized is your destiny.
Your original union cries out to become flesh in your life.
Your frailty and your glory,
your littleness and your greatness
yearn to come home in your heart.

The heavens have heard whispers of our splendor
and God still weeps at your birth.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem called “A Psalm of Life” which was a response to human life gathered up in the statement that we are made of dust and eventually return to dust.  He saw life as full of possibilities, of having faith in the power and potential of life – that we learn from the past, live in the present and hope for the future.  Perhaps you have read Longfellow’s poem – I have included it in this reflection for there is much to ponder in it.

“Tell me not, in mournful numbers, life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers, and things are not what they seem.
Life is real!  Life is earnest! And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest, was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow, is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each tomorrow find us farther than today.
Art is long, and time is fleeting, and our hearts, through stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating funeral marches to the grave.

In the world’s broad field of battle, in the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!  Be a hero in the strife!
Trust no future, howe’er pleasant!  Let the dead past bury its dead!
Act, – act in the living present!  Heart within, and God o’erhead!

Lives of great men and women all remind us we can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us footprints on the sands of time;
Footprints, that perhaps another, sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother, seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing, with a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing, learn to labour and to wait.”

A Prayer for Ash Wednesday (from the Jesuits website ‘Spirit and Verse’)

We forget sometimes that ashes come from fire. 
That this soft black powder was once a firm green frond,
Bright and vibrant before it became dry and brittle, stiff and fibrous
before a flame transformed it into dust.
Every living thing submits to change. 
Let’s not fear it. 

From seed to plant, palm to ash,
this bit of earth smudged on our foreheads today
was carried lovingly in the hands of the Creator.
What fires will we step into this Lent?
What new forms will our souls take
when we encounter the holy blaze of the Living God?
We are – it is true – ash to ash and dust to dust,
but whether in youth or in old age, in life or in death,
Let us be assured, we are held, and we are God’s.