As the season of Lent begins during this Jubilee Year of Mercy, one friar shares why we should embrace the phrase “Remember that you are dust and unto dust you will return.”
On Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, Catholics and many other Christians around the world have their foreheads marked with ashes in the form of a cross, a custom that goes back to the papacy of Gregory the Great (590-604). The use of ashes for repentance and/or mourning, however, goes back to biblical times.
I remember well going to my parish church with my mother on this day and the priest said in Latin, “Memento homo quia pulvis es, et in pulvermen reverteris” as our foreheads were marked with ashes. iit was Latin, I did not understand the words. After the Second Vatican Council, when English began to be used, the words were clear: “Remember that you are dust and unto dust you will return.” That sounded rather harsh to many so the phrase “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” came to be used. During 45 years of ministry, I have almost always used the latter form.
I would like to make a case this year for the “dust” phrase and a very Franciscan case at that. Toward the end of his life, St. Francis composed the beautiful “Canticle of Brother Sun.” Without knowing the context in which this classic of Italian literature was composed, one might think that it expressed the romantic and sentimental thoughts of the young Francis. In actuality, Francis — tired, weary, ill and mostly blind — was spending the night in a lean-to hut along the side of what was then the Poor Clare Monastery in Assisi. As he awakened in the morning, there were mice crawling on him and he also felt the glow and warmth of the sun. At that moment, he realized that he was a creature, a created being, like the mice and like the sun, the moon, the water, etc. God, the Most High, was the Creator. He then invites all of creation to sing God’s praises.
So what, then, does this have to do with Ash Wednesday? A lot. To be reminded that we are dust is to be reminded that we are finite creatures — that, as Francis often said, we are little, small and God is mighty. Pope Francis, in his encyclical “Laudato Si’”, named for Francis’ canticle, reminds us of that truth in the context of today’s world. We are lowly creatures, made from the same evolutionary soup as the rest of creation. We come from God and will return to God. Lowly though we are, we are also loved by God. In the meantime, we have a responsibility to care for our common home, the earth, and all of God’s creation that fills the earth.
Because we are creatures made of “dust”, we are in need of God’s mercy — first, because it is God’s merciful providence that sustains us in life, and second, because we are not perfect. We are sinners. God’s mercy is also shown because we believe that after we return to dust we will return to a loving God.
So, on this Ash Wednesday my friends, remember that you are dust, will return to dust and celebrate what a wonderful truth that is. And, of course, by all means, do repent and believe in the Gospel.
- “Wandering Friar Blog Becoming Book” — Aug. 1, 2012, HNP Today
- “Jubilarian Profile: John Anglin Marks 50 Years as a Friar” — Feb. 19, 2014, HNP Today