Man, drawn from the dust, must return to it, and all that he does meanwhile, with the exception of what good he may achieve, is but dust and vanity; the good alone survives. Such are the truths which the Church wishes to engrave in the memory, but still more in the hearts, of her children, by the sprinkling of ashes on this first day of Lent. This custom dates from the first centuries of the Church, and was then observed, not toward all the faithful without distinction, but toward public sinners who had submitted themselves to canonical penance, to obtain thereby reconciliation with the Church and admission to a share in the divine Eucharist. The bishop imposed on them the obligation of wearing the hair-shirt and penitent garb, placing ashes on their head, and then excluding them from the church until the day of Easter. Meanwhile, they had to remain humbly prostrate at the church-porch, imploring the prayers of those who, more happy than they, might assist at the divine mysteries within the sacred building. The custom of putting ashes on the head in token of penitence is even more ancient than Christianity; the Jews practiced it, and the holy King David tells us that he had submitted to the observance. It may be said rather to date from the first ages of the world; for the holy man Job, long before even the time of Moses, followed the custom. Nothing is, in fact, more calculated to lead the sinner to enter into himself than the remembrance of his last end. Nothing is better fitted to beat down pride and put a check on futile projects and guilty purposes than the terrible and sad memento, “Remember that thou art but dust!” Empires, riches, honors, and dignities, resplendent palaces, triumphal cars, fair adornments, beauty, strength, and power, all crumble away, and their very possessor is but a ruin, and, ere a few days have sped, will have dwindled into dust.
Reflection — Bear ever in mind, then, men and sinners, that “you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”
Taken from Father Alban Butler’s “Lives of the Saints for Every Day in the Year — With Reflections” Copyright 1955.