On Ash Wednesday of 1996, at Santa Sabina Basilica in Rome, Pope John Paul II placed ashes on my forehead while repeating the familiar words, Remember, man, that you are dust and to dust you will return. (Genesis 3:19) In his homily, the pope had asked, “Why does the Church place ashes on our foreheads today? Why does she remind us of death? . . . Why? To prepare us for Christ’s Passover. . . . Today we need to hear the ‘you are dust and to dust you will return’ of Ash Wednesday, so that the definitive truth of the Gospel, the truth about the Resurrection, will unfold before us.”
Of all the spiritual disciplines of Lent, the remembrance of death seems to me to be the simplest and most effective. Christians remember death as a divine decree, not just an inexorable fact: Remember, man, that you are dust and to dust you will return is God’s word to Adam, and when we hear it on Ash Wednesday, it is God’s word to each one of us. In this word, God gives us the promise of an end, and the warning of a judgment.
In one sense, God’s decree of death could be considered as a blessing to man because it puts an end to living in a fallen world. Death comes to Adam as an end to the evils that affect his life as a result of sin: His return to the earth from which he was made marks the end of his bitter toil to make it fruitful. In light of this, our remembrance of death can be seen as part of our thanksgiving for God’s gift of life: in the words of Job, The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away: blessed be the name of the Lord. (Jb. 1:21)
At the same time, death brings each one of us to judgment—into the light of truth about ourselves. God in His mercy decrees death as the limit to whatever evil we might do or suffer in this world, and as an invitation to entrust ourselves entirely to His mercy as we pass through death to judgment. The death of Jesus and His resurrection guarantee us the forgiveness of repented sin, and admission to eternal life in the world to come when we have left this one behind.
The secular world affirms death as a blessing with no reference at all to God, or sin, or judgment. Hospice care strives to make our dying painless, if not pleasant—a smooth transition from this world to the next (whatever that is thought to be)—and euthanasia keeps the process under man’s control. Death imposed by abortion is considered increasingly to be a blessing: Katha Pollitt, a prominent feminist and columnist for The Nation, writes that we “can and must treat abortion as an unequivocal positive rather than a ‘necessary evil.’” (Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights) In either case, euthanasia and abortion treat death as something that we do (for our own good!) instead of something that we suffer.
God’s decree of death puts a boundary on the body’s suffering in order to bring our souls into His presence and His light, to make us face ourselves in truth. The dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. (Ecclesiastes 12:7) In the prospect of death there is both the promise of a blessing and the warning of a judgment—but we cannot embrace the promise unless we heed the warning. The limited knowledge of ourselves that we have now does not bode well for what will be unveiled in the judgment.
So in this season of penance, anticipating our death and harboring no illusions about ourselves, we pray, “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.” We anticipate our death with hope, believing that the light of the truth about ourselves is the same as the light of the love of God for us in Jesus Christ our Lord, who was delivered up to death for our sins, and rose again for our justification. (Romans 4:25)