Thursday, October 16, 2014

Remember That Thou Art Dust (Throwback)

I originally published the piece below on March 15th of this year, the Saturday after Ash Wednesday. It may be a little out of season, but today seems a good day to reflect on our need for penitence - after all, what day isn't?

 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.
     First thing: I prefer the traditional Ash Wednesday admonition, “Remember Man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.”  Now very often they say “Repent and listen to the Gospel” or some such thing, which is a fine thing to say, a very good thing to say, but a definite softening of the traditional statement.

     Second thing: in a very good Ash Wednesday homily at our local church, Father P. discussed the apparent contradiction between the first reading from Joel, which warned against  “theatrics” to draw attention to our charitable actions, and what he rightly described as “one of the most theatrical things we do as Catholics”, that is, wearing ashes in the sign of the cross on our foreheads.  He pointed out the importance of outward signs to embody spiritual experiences which, again, was very true and appropriate; but it didn’t quite answer the initial objection.
     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. They are a public sign of our weakness. 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 occasion; 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.”