Pope Benedict XVI processed from the Benedictine Church of Saint Anselm to the Dominican Church of Saint Sabina on the Aventine Hill. A long standing tradition of the popes, though it was in abeyance for several years until 1979 when John Paul II revived the tradition. The Benedictine monks welcome the Pope and his entourage for a moment of prayer and reflective before processing to the 5th century church of the Dominican Friars where Holy Mass is celebrated with the distribution of ashes. As usual, Cardinal Tomko, the cardinal titular of Saint Sabina’s gave Benedict his ashes. The following homily of the Pope’s focusses on the origins of this humble sign that assists in our recognition of salvation. Is this our recognition, too?
Ash Wednesday is a day of fasting and penance on which we begin a new journey towards the Easter of Resurrection, the journey of Lent. I would like to reflect on the liturgical sign of the ashes, a material sign, a natural element that, in the Liturgy, becomes a sacred symbol, so important on this day that marks the start of our Lenten journey. In ancient times, in the Jewish culture, it was common to sprinkle one’s head with ashes as a sign of penance, and to dress in sack-cloth and rags. For us Christians, there is this one moment which has important symbolic and spiritual relevance.
Ashes are the material sign that brings the cosmos into the Liturgy. The most important signs are those of the Sacraments: water, oil, bread and wine, which become true sacramental elements through which we communicate the Grace of Christ who comes among us. The ashes are not a sacramental sign, but they are linked with prayer and the sanctification of the Christian people. Before the ashes are placed on our heads, they are blessed according to two possible formulae: in the first they are called “austere symbols”, in the second, we invoke a blessing directly upon them, referring to the text in the Book of Genesis which can also accompany the imposition of the ashes: “Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return”.
Let us reflect for a moment on this passage of Genesis.
It concludes with a judgement made by God after original sin. God curses the serpent who caused man and woman to commit sin. Then He punishes the woman saying she will suffer the pains of giving birth. Then He punishes the man, saying he will suffer the fatigue of labour and He curses the soil saying “accursed be the soil because of you, because of your sin.” The man and woman are not cursed directly as the serpent is, but because of Adam’s sin. Let us reread the account of how God created man from the Earth. “God fashioned man of dust from the soil. Then He breathed into his nostrils, a breath of life. Thus man became a live being. Then God planted a garden in Eden, which is in the East, and there He put the man He had fashioned.” Thus the sign of the ashes recalls the great story of creation which tells us that being human means unifying matter with Divine breath, using the image of dust formed by God and given life by His breath, breathed into the nostrils of the new creature.
In the Genesis account, the symbol of dust takes on a negative connotation because of sin. Before the fall the soil is totally good: through God’s work it is capable of producing “every kind of tree enticing to look at and good to eat.” After the fall and following the divine curse it produces only thorns and brambles and only in exchange for the sweat of man’s brow will it surrender its fruits. The dust of the Earth no longer recalls the creative hand of God, one that is open to life, but it becomes a sign of death: “Dust you are and unto dust you shall return.”
It is clear from this Biblical text that the Earth participates in man’s destiny. In one of his homilies, St. John Chrysostom says: “See how after his disobedience, everything is imposed on man in a way that is contrary to his previous life style.” This cursing of the soil has a “medicinal” function for man who learns from the resistance of the earth to recognize his limitations and his own human nature.
Another ancient commentary summarizes this beautifully: “Adam was created pure by God to serve Him. All creatures were created for the service of man. He was destined to be lord and king over all creatures. But when he embraced evil he did so by listening to something outside of himself. This penetrated his heart and took over his whole being. Thus ensnared by evil, Creation, which had assisted and served him, was ensnared together with him.”
As we said earlier quoting John Chrysostom, the cursing of the soil had a “medicinal”, or healing, function: meaning that God’s intention is always good and more profou
nd, even than His own curse. The curse does not come from God but from sin. God cannot avoid inflicting the curse because he respects human freedom and its consequences even when they are negative. Thus, within the punishment and within the curse, there is a good intention that comes from God. When He says, “Dust you are and unto dust you shall return”, He intends inflicting a just punishment, but also announcing the way to salvation. This will pass through the Earth, through that same dust, that same flesh which will be assumed by the Word Incarnate.
This is context in which the words of Genesis are reflected in the Ash Wednesday liturgy: as an invitation to penance, humility, and an awareness of our mortal state. We are not to despair, but to welcome in this mortal state of ours the unthinkable nearness of God who opens the way to Resurrection, to paradise regained, beyond death. There is a text by Origen that says: “That which was flesh, earth, dust, and was destroyed by death and returned to dust and ashes, is made to rise again from the earth. According to the merits of the soul that inhabits the body, the person advances towards the glory of a spiritual body.”
The merits of the soul about which Origen speaks are important, but more important are the merits of Christ, the efficacy of his Paschal Mystery. St. Paul gives us a good summary in the second reading: “For our sake God made the sinless one into sin so that in Him we might become the goodness of God.” For us to enjoy divine forgiveness depends essentially on the fact that God Himself, in the person of His Son, wanted to share in our human condition, but not in the corruption of sin.
The Father resurrected Him through the power of His Holy Spirit and Jesus, the new Adam, became the spirit who gives us life, the first fruits of the new creation.
The same spirit that resurrected Jesus from the dead can transform our hearts from hearts of stone to hearts of flesh. We said as much in the psalm: “A pure heart create for me O God, put a steadfast spirit within me, do not cast me away from your presence, nor deprive me of your holy spirit.” That the same God that exiled our first parents from Eden, sent His own Son to this Earth devastated by sin, without sparing Him, so that we, prodigal children, can return, penitent and redeemed through His mercy, to our true homeland. So it be for all of us, and for all believers, and for all those who humbly recognize their need to be saved. Amen.