Wednesday 17 February 2021

Dust and ashes

Today is one of the most distinctive days of the Church’s calendar. We all like those days where we get something, and today everyone is invited to be covered with ash. But when you think about it, that doesn’t actually sound like a particularly nice thing to receive. Ash has become such a significant sign of the beginning of Lent — but why ash?

As the priest sprinkles the ash, he gives us an idea. He says, ‘Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.’ They’re not his own words of course. He’s quoting God himself. When Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden, God reminded him of his own mortality. So there’s a message here: be careful how you live now, because one day you will face God in judgment.

Remember that you are dust. Therefore, ash. Except ash and dust are not the same thing. Man isn’t made from ash. Yes the the two are similar, but not the same. In the Old Testament, people show their grief and sorrow by sprinkling dust or ashes or both on themselves. The King of Nineveh covers himself in sackcloth and ashes to show his repentance when Jonah preaches. Job repents in dust and ashes. It’s not just a reminder of mortality: ash is simply something unpleasant — like wearing sackcloth. It doesn’t do anything in and of itself. And therefore, it’s not something we want to do instinctively. Covering ourselves in ash serves no practical purpose — we only do it because we don’t want to.

When we repent in ashes, we’re using that God-given gift of reason, that higher ability unique to humans among all animals to think and choose a course of action that isn’t practically helpful. Ash doesn’t make us healthier, it doesn’t make us happier, it doesn’t fulfil any of our natural, animal instincts. It becomes a sign of us choosing to be as God intended us — not giving in to our passions all the time, but choosing our actions through reason and understanding.

All of this then is a prelude to our Lenten fasting, where the same idea applies. You don’t see animals fasting in wildlife documentaries. It doesn’t make sense. Nature says that you should eat what you can when you can if you want to survive, and animals cannot overcome that nature. We are called to a higher vocation. We are different from animals. God gives us reason and free will — an ability to choose and control our actions.

So it’s a bit ungrateful of us when we so often ignore those gifts. We sin by giving in to those passions rather than doing what we know to be good by the light of reason. We waste that gift of God. So our fasting is a chance to put things right. We put reason in charge of what we eat. We do something that doesn’t make practical sense. And that’s the point. We’re not fasting for any other reasons. We’re not dieting, we’re not trying to be healthy by eating less during Lent. We’re giving something up unnecessarily in order to put reason back in command. That way, when our bodies try to get us to behave like animals, our reason will be strong enough to say ‘no’. If we can say ‘no’ to our stomachs when they ask for more food, we’ll be able to say ‘no’ to our bodies, our instincts, our emotions in all other kinds of areas too.

If only that really were our worst problem. But our bodies are not our biggest weakness. Our biggest problem is our mind. When we do choose to use that gift of reason, we misuse it. We try to find ways of getting what we want, regardless of what’s good for anyone else, or what God tells us is good for us. We’re all trying to get our own way all the time, ever since Adam and Eve decided that they’d rather listen to the advice of a talking snake than the command of their Creator.

So that use of reason also needs to be purified and tamed. And that’s a much more important thing to worry about. As the prophet Joel says, ‘Let your hearts be broken, not your garments torn.’ The external signs only go so far. It’s what’s going on inside that matters most.

Our Holy Father St Philip used to say that the sanctity of a man lay in the width of three fingers. And as he said this, he would place three fingers against the forehead of the person he was speaking to, to show that by this, he meant the mortification of the reason.

We’re practising saying ‘no’ to ourselves. And we don’t have to do very much penance before that becomes a challenge. It’s much more important to practise this in our conversation, our decisions, our interactions with others. Things don’t always have to be exactly as we want them to be. And in those small things that really don’t matter, why not practise letting other people have their way, so that eventually we’ll be happy to let God have things his way? Or in the words of St Philip: ‘We ought to mortify our understanding in little things, if we wish easily to mortify it in great ones, and to advance in the way of virtue.’ Start small and get bigger, but the chief thing is to tame the understanding and will. The sanctity of a man lies in the width of three fingers.

The end result of all of this must be a growth in charity. If we can give way to other people’s opinions more easily, if we’re happy doing what God asks us to, instead of trying to reason our way out of it, then we’ll find it easier to love God and our neighbour. And that’s the point of Lent. Whatever we take on, whatever we give up, ultimately the point is to make us more loving in 40 days’ time than we are today.

It’s quite appropriate that the ashes are placed on our heads, as a sign that this is where most of the work needs to happen in us. We see in today’s Gospel how Christ shows us that the biggest change needs to take place where others don’t see it, secretly, privately, ‘so that our Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward us’. And what is that reward? What reward is there for those who know that they are dust and ashes? Well, as the great hymn puts it: Exult, O dust and ashes, the Lord shall be thy part. His only, his forever, thou shalt be and thou art.