Ash Wednesday

by Fr. Chrysostom Baer, O.Praem., Prior


“We are but ashes and shall return to dust.”

At the blessing of the ashes which we will impose today as our spiritual beginning of Lent, the prayer of blessing says, “O God, Who desire not the death of sinners but their conversion, mercifully hear our prayers and in Your kindness be pleased to bless these ashes, which we intend to receive upon our heads, that we, who acknowledge we are but ashes and shall return to dust, may, through a steadfast observance of Lent, gain pardon for sins and newness of life after the likeness of Your Risen Son.”

“We are but ashes and shall return to dust.” It is a sentiment particularly poignant after yesterday. Over the last year we have seen more than our fair share of the ebbing out of life’s little day. In the summer we transferred Abbot Parker’s remains to a new casket and placed it in the crypt. Then we buried two of our beloved Rosarian Dominican Sisters in our new cemetery. Our Hungarian founding Fathers we transported as a group later on also to place in the earth here, not to mention the other friends and family who now wait here for the glory of the resurrection. And then yesterday morning, Fr. Leo Celano, our first American priest, passed to his eternal reward. It’s enough to provoke the somber reflection:

Change and decay in all around I see
O Thou Who changest not abide with me!

It is a unique experience worth reflecting on, worth looking at from the eyes of eternity. Every one of us is going to the same place; no one is exempt from the penalty of death. But if you stand at the foot of the bed of a dying man—even one surrounded by confreres supporting him with prayers, encouraging him, thanking him, loving him—when you think there is soon a moment where he will stand alone before Christ his judge, you have to ask yourself, why do I cling to my sins? Why won’t I let them go? Will they make me as happy as meeting Jesus with a clear conscience? When you’re in his position, do you really think you’re going to enjoy the thought of past pleasures, stale glory, long gone pride? How long do you think eternity is? Foolish man, why do you love your sins so much?

It is the soul that holds the body together. With its departure, “we are but ashes and shall return to dust.” “And the dust returns to the earth as it once was, and the life breath returns to God Who gave it.” And then there is a reckoning, we must never forget that. As Thomas Celano warned us:

Day of wrath! O day of mourning!
See fulfilled the prophets’ warning,
Heaven and earth in ashes burning!

The thought of that moment, that account, should be enough to inspire our repentance, our hatred for sin, our longing to be with Christ, our love for Him, our need for Him. For Brother Lawrence, the author of The Practice of the Presence of God, it was that moment of a tree losing its leaves, a seasonal decay, that set his heart on the path to what never decays.

A few months ago I had the most vivid dream of my life. I was alone, not on earth, not in the air, but facing up, looking into a vast, roiling cloud of fire, billowing red and orange plumes tinged with black. I knew for certain I was beholding the glory of God. “Our God is a consuming fire.” It would consume me; He would consume me. But I wanted nothing more. I prayed over and over again, “Lord, receive me into Thy glory.” I was drawing near; my soul was about to break free of the body, filled with more joy than in ever a waking moment. I even felt that if it happened in dream, it would happen in reality. And I realized that if I prayed like that, it was God inspiring the prayer He would also fulfill. I wanted nothing more. I was so happy.

I was not ready, not worthy for that dream to come true. But we all want to be. We all want to be so detached from our sins that we rejoice at being called home and rush there with all our heart—no pause, no delay, no hesitation. “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to Me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God. For gracious and merciful is He, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment.” The imposition of ashes is a meditation on death, to remind us what the end of sin is. And so we embrace this holy season of repentance, we turn away from sin, and we choose the God of love. “So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

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