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Ash Wednesday's rituals and symbols [Commentary]

In our religious relationships there are frequently rituals and symbols: the sign of the cross, prayers, special embraces, a kiss. These customs are expressions of our humility, love and heartfelt needs.

Many people who seldom go to church make a concerted effort to get there on Ash Wednesday to receive ashes. It is an annual ritual. As a boy, I recall churches opening at 6 a.m., so people could get their ashes before work. It seemed a curious thing to do, accepting a cross of ash on one's forehead — a symbol of our mortality and repentance. The ashes are a visible reminder that we are always searching for our souls, seeking the meaning of life.

Ashes have profound significance. For some, they stir memories of happiness and laughter as reminders of joyful campfires from years past. But ashes are most often reminders of devastation, terror and sorrow. They are what's left behind after death and destruction: the ashes of a family home burned in a fire, the ashes that rained down on New York City on 9/11, the ashes of Auschwitz, the ashes in the urn after cremation — the remains of someone dearly loved.

For Christians, Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, a self-imposed time of fasting, repentance and almsgiving. It is symbolic of Christ's 40 days of temptation in the desert, allowing 40 days to prepare for the celebration of his passion, death and resurrection.

For believers and many non-believers, Lent is an invitation to confront our own weaknesses, for getting rid of ways of life that are between us and the person we ought to be. It is a time to look inward, but also outward, toward works of service for others.

On Ash Wednesday, we display the twin symbols — dust and the sign of the cross — like badges of honor.

The imposition of ashes — of dust — is a reminder of our death. It is a symbol of sorrow for our sins. The symbol of dust that comes from the Book of Genesis: "You are dust and to dust you will return."

For some, dust is a symbol of the common place. For others, it is an image of indifference; we are blind to the dust all around us. It has no content. It blows away. However, Ash Wednesday reminds us that we are each scripture's image of dust. We are each one of the uncountable billions scattered throughout the world, maybe adrift — like the dust we cannot capture. We are creatures of sin, but, not always sinning, and frequently perplexed about our impending return to dust.

But this view of dust as a symbol — by itself — is incomplete. When our forehead is dusted with ashes on Ash Wednesday, it is also dusted with another symbol: the sign of the cross.

As scripture writers indicate, the ash symbol of the sign of the cross reminds us that our Lord's dust was as fleeting as our dust. His feet scuffed the dust of Palestine. His body bloodied the dust of Gethsemane. His last cry embraced the dust of all of us, in the dust of death.

It is in the sign of the cross that joy overcomes sorrow. Scripture's words are intended to transform, scripture's words should not terrify us. Of course, we will die. But the sign of the cross on our forehead cries out: Death is not the end!

Lenten ash reminds us to transform the dust in our life. Generosity to the poor reminds us of almsgiving. Seeking a true sense of purpose reminds us of fasting. Praying reminds us to turn away from temptation.

During Lent, our minds and hearts focus on the twin symbols, understanding that we are redeemed by sacrifice and mercy and that we are always loved by God.

James Westwater serves as a deacon at St. Isaac Jogues Parish in Baltimore. His email is jimwestw@verizon.net.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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