In South Louisiana it’s always quite a spectacle to see the closing of Mardi Gras. It’s like something out of a movie.
The mayor, the state police mounted on horseback, and the broom-ready sanitation workers drive out the revelers from the streets to begin cleaning the French Quarter of New Orleans. The scrubbing and sweeping isn’t just to get the area ready for tourism, it’s primarily an outward sign to mark the beginning of Lent, that great spiritual season of the liturgical year, where the soul is given a good scrub too.
There’s another spectacle that comes on Ash Wednesday morning in Jackson Square as tourists and parishioners alike pour into St. Louis Cathedral-Basilica to go to Reconciliation, to hear the Word of God read to them, and to participate in a rite in which they hear “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” and are smeared with a reminder of that dust: the ashes from last year’s palms which have been burned.
The common joke among clergy is that “Ash Wednesday is the only Holy Day of Obligation that everyone remembers besides Christmas and Easter.” Only, Ash Wednesday isn’t a holy day of obligation (there’s the unspoken punchline). And yet they come, Catholic and Protestant, sober and hungover, rich, poor, or somewhere in between, to receive this simple mark of mortality.
According to the Natural Law, a concept that has always been under fire in times of supposed cultural and societal “enlightenment”, man has a built-in desire to preserve his or her existence – to stay alive. It’s a desire placed in the heart by Our Creator. And it is, I believe, this desire that drives men to church on Ash Wednesday to be marked with a symbol of death.
The ashes and the phrase that accompanies them can’t be understood as any other thing. The ashes are a former palm branch from the liturgy of Passion (or Palm) Sunday. A living thing that was used to mark Christ as Messiah has been burned to mark the Messiah’s death like Adam’s. The phrase comes from the moment after the fall in Genesis:
By the sweat of your brow
you shall eat bread,
Until you return to the ground,
from which you were taken;
For you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.¹
But, this mark also carries with it a promise that St. Paul remembers well in his letter to the bishop Timothy:
This saying is trustworthy:
If we have died with him
we shall also live with him;²
Over the course of the year, we amass so much sweat from our brow. We work and we toil. We know the difficulty of grinding the proverbial wheat for our daily bread. In the work, we battle not only physical fatigue but also spiritual powers that we cannot see. There is a daily battle against sin. Sometimes we succumb to this fight and let the battle overtake us. Our sin-inclined will, the spirit of the world, or Satan himself drags us into the dust and we risk suffocation in it.
Because our human condition knows this mandate from God better than we’d like to admit, it’s no wonder that we are drawn to receive ashes as a reminder of this. But there is another component built into this natural law of desiring to sustain one’s life: the hope that it is possible to do so. If there were no hope, surely we would not risk the energy to preserve, sustain, and even procreate life.
And so, when the mobs of Mardi Gras go in search of ashes they look not to the cigarette trays nor the gutter. They look to the cross, under which the minister holds the bowl of blessed Palm ashes. There is a human longing to remember that we are dust, but an even greater spiritual groaning in hope that we are dust worthy of redemption.
It was the non-believers in Nineveh who sat in the ashes lest they be destroyed by a God they did not yet know. It was St. Peter himself who at his apostolic selection begged the mercy of Jesus for he knew himself to be sinful and more worthy of the Messiah’s wrath than of His love. It is we who willfully place our heads in the ashes that mark our unworthiness.
The Ninevites hoped. St. Peter hoped. We hope. And the epistle to Timothy spreads wide the gateway to the sinful who repent, the weak of flesh who do battle, and the parched of spirit longing for life giving water:
…if we persevere
we shall also reign with him.
The cross and the corpus of Christ, who persevered past the end, point to the empty tomb and the font of baptism, whereby our redemption is secured, the dry bones have promise of resurrection, and the soul is quenched.
So, it’s really not surprising that everybody goes to Church on Ash Wednesday. Our restless hearts would have it no other way.
¹ Genesis 3:19
² 2 Letter of Paul Timothy 2:11