On a somber Wednesday we will gather to smudge every forehead with ashes, admonishing each other to remember that dust returns to dust and that the only way through death to life is Christ. The ashes are made by burning palms—given to us on Passion Sunday a year ago with the invitation to “go forth in peace, praising Jesus our Messiah, as did the crowds that welcomed him into Jerusalem.” Our baptismal life is a lifelong pilgrimage with Christ toward Jerusalem. Yet like our best intentiuons, last year’s palm branches now have become dried and brittle—fodder for the fire. So our pilgrimage leads us to Lent. And a hostile climate of sin and suffering necessitates drastic measures: We are marked with ashes as a sign of our willingness to pray, fast and give alms.
But this gritty smudge that we accept on our foreheads is not a death sentence. It is not the mark of Cain. A reminder of our fragile mortality, it is nonetheless shaped in the great sign of salvation: The ashes form a cross, a thumb‑printed cross that marks the same heads that were smeared with chrism at baptism. Anointed with that royal oil, we are committed to conversion, to continually setting out for the new Jerusalem, to leaving behind forever our captivity in Egypt.
This gritty ashen sign reminds us that on the way there is soil and toil, sweat and hard work before we come to the oasis in this desert—the Easter bath of baptism. At the font, on a damp and chilly night, water will wash away soil and oil will soothe away toil to make new Christians royal: heirs of the reign of God. The dusty smudges will be gone, and in the light of the paschal candle the oily heads of the newly baptized will shine like the moon and the stars, reminding us of our destiny. What begins in ashes ends in water and in fire.
Copyright © 2001 Archdiocese of Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1800 North Hermitage Avenue, Chicago IL 60622‑1101; 1‑800‑933‑1800; www.ltp.org. Text by David Philippart. Art by Rosie Kelly. All rights reserved. Used with permission.