I had a little epiphany this morning. Not a BIG EPIPHANY, Road to Damascus style, just a little lamp going off in my head. Something I heard Fr. Mitch Pacwa say pulled a few different things together for me in a way that made sense.
Here’s where Fr. Mitch comes in as the catalyst (with a little help from Julius Caesar and his friends). Amidst a discussion on his radio show of whether the ashes on the forehead were or were not ostentatious, Fr. Mitch pointed out that the ashes were a tangible reminder of our fragility, that all too soon we’ll be nothing but dust. Nothing to brag about there. I was immediately reminded of a curious feature of the ancient Roman triumphal parade. The Triumph was a formal, highly choreographed event celebrating significant victories on the part of a particular military commander, called the Triumphator for the event; as the Triumphator, amidst the celebration and pageantry, rode through the streets of Rome dressed like the god Jupiter in a golden chariot, a slave stood behind him, holding a crown over his head but whispering over and over: “Remember that you are going to die.” Can’t have the guy thinking he actually is a god, after all.
That’s the valuable service rendered by the traditional formula. We, not unlike your average Roman general, are fallible and prone to self-puffery. Whatever the original symbolism of the ashes, walking about in public displaying so prominent a sign of our Christian Virtue is liable to be a temptation to the Sin of Pride. We need a blunt reminder, we need to be hit over the head with the obvious: “Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.”