Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life;
and the man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7)
On Ash Wednesday, millions of Catholics will receive the Sign of the Cross in black ash smudged prominently on their foreheads. For one day each year this symbol marks the foreheads of the faithful, providing a visible sign of the body of believers. The words of the minister, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” remind us of the truth of our temporal existence. These symbols and words usher the faithful into the season of Lent. They call Catholics to self-denial and repentance as we commence a Lenten journey of penance, prayer and fasting toward the Paschal Mystery of Christ.
Self-denial and fasting; the Sign of the Cross in ash on our foreheads; and the somewhat ominous words “… and to dust you shall return.” These outwardly unsettling signs and actions are not ends in themselves. Paradoxically, they are instead portals to joy, signposts to our character and seal as Christians, and segues to eternal life. The penitential practices of Lent draw us closer to the immortal Breath of Life which animates each of us.
The symbols of today indicate that we are all pilgrims on the way, working alone and together, traveling and striving toward the one common goal of humanity. The cross of black ash on our foreheads visibly reminds us of that indelible mark with which we were sealed at Baptism. It foreshadows that day of days when we, as a body of believers, will be inseparably united through Christ in the praise, love, and worship of God the Father.
Anticipating that ultimate day, let us re-orient ourselves this day. Looking to our left and right and seeing our pilgrim brothers and sisters marked with the sign of faith, let us encourage each other on this collective journey.
Let us cast aside division and distraction which only draw us from the divine path.
Let us seek out those struggling on the path and lift them up.
Let us encounter those who have not found the path and show them The Way.
Let us, ourselves, be humble enough to accept the helping hand of another.
So let us journey together towards Christ on the Cross. As He suffered, we too will suffer. May the visible sign with which we are marked today unite us in facing the trials of this world, so that by profoundly persevering through them, we may be eternally united in the joy of the world to come.
Reflection by Jordan Jones, nSJ, a second-year novice, currently ministering to immigrants and refugees in El Paso, Texas.