Remember That You Are Dust, And To Dust You Shall Return

“Remember, man, that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

On the first day of Lent we heard these words (adapted from Genesis 3:19) spoken as a priest dipped his thumb in ash and made the sign of the cross on our foreheads. They served as an outward sign of an inner penance and a symbol of mortality. We wore those ashes for the remainder of the day, or at least until they rubbed off. Wherever we went and whatever we did, we were witnesses to the faith. Those who saw us know that we have been baptized into the death of Jesus Christ and hope to share in His resurrection.

More people attend Ash Wednesday mass than Christmas or even Easter, the holiest day of the year. That alone is impressive, but more impressive is the fact that it’s not even a Holy Day of Obligation. We are obliged to attend Sunday mass and a handful of special occasions, but that rarely guarantees universal or even majority attendance. A recent survey found that only a third of those who identify themselves as Catholic attends mass weekly. Yet a great many of the remaining two-thirds will take time out of their work day to attend a morning or midday Ash Wednesday mass to receive ashes.

Why do people make such special efforts? Would we still attend if we didn’t have something to show for it? Are we publicly displaying our piety, real or pretended, seeking the admiration of men?

That seems unlikely in today’s postmodern world. Popular culture makes little room for public acts of asceticism. Prudence, temperance, piety, self-control, and chastity are unlikely to make one popular at parties. Much emphasis is placed on shallow measures of beauty, hedonistic behavior, and reckless consumption.

Why, then, do so many people attend Ash Wednesday mass? What draws us in from our busy lives to embrace stillness and simplicity? Let us explore some of the meanings of Ash Wednesday and Lent and try to understand what the Church is trying to teach us this Lenten season.

Sin entered the world when man desired the ability to determine good and evil for himself rather than trust the Lord, his creator (c.f. Genesis 3). Man abused God’s trust and separated himself from the Lord. Man could have lived in perfect harmony with God but chose to rebel, so he was no longer fit to be in God’s presence. From that point on, we would bear the wounds of that rebellion – suffering and death.

How does Ash Wednesday fit into this? The ashes remind us of our mortality. We gather together and acknowledge that none is perfect and we all deserve death and eternal separation from God for our sins. The solemnity also serves to usher in the liturgical season of Lent. Just as Advent prepares us to celebrate the Incarnation at Christmas and anticipate the second coming of Christ, during Lent the Church helps the faithful prepare for the remembrance of the great sacrifice and victorious resurrection of Christ at Easter and our own resurrection.

The sacrifice of Good Friday and the triumph of Easter are made present for the Church in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the sacrament of our redemption. Jesus gave His flesh to save and sustain us. In order to receive this sacrament worthily, we fast and, if necessary, confess our mortal sins. Each time we receive the Eucharist, we recall our Lord’s passion. If we prepare ourselves for the Eucharist with repentance and fasting, surely we should do likewise for Easter, hence Lent.

Starting with Ash Wednesday, Lent is a season lasting forty days and ending with Holy Saturday. The six Sundays of Lent are not counted in the forty days because every Sabbath recalls Easter and is a time for joy and worship, rather than self-denial and self-deprivation. Why forty days? Forty is an important number in Scripture. It represents purification and fullness of time or number. There are numerous examples of the use of forty in Scripture. Some notable ones are the great flood (Genesis 6 and 7), the time Moses spent on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:27-28), the desert wandering (Numbers 32:10-13), and Israel’s subjugation by the Philistines (Judges 13:1).

The Old Testament Scripture that may be the most relevant to the observation of Lent is the story of Jonah and the repentance of Nineveh. Jonah informed the people of Nineveh that the Lord would destroy them in forty days if they did not repent. Jonah did not expect them to heed the warning, but they did. Every one of them fasted and wore sackcloth. The king ordered the whole nation to cry mightily to God and to turn from their evil ways (Jonah 3:4-10). Like the citizens of Nineveh, we repent of our sins and pray for God’s mercy.

While the Scriptures of the old covenants (Noah, Abraham, and Moses) are rich with symbolic use of the number forty and inspirations for Lent, the second person of the Trinity Himself gives us the best example to follow. Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness without food. The devil tempted him with worldly goods and power, but He did not succumb. We would do well to learn from His example that “man shall not live by bread alone” – gadgets, cars, fancy clothes – “but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”, to worship and serve the Lord alone, rather than the idols of money, power, and popularity, and not tempt God or become presumptuous of His mercy in our apathy and rebelliousness.

During Lent the Church helps her members to seek to die to self and open themselves up to grace. We embrace repentance. That is we seek to restore a right relationship with God. We know, of course, that we have already received the mercy of sanctifying grace, through which we are saved by Jesus Christ and made acceptable in God’s sight. Through baptism “the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). However, though we are no longer accountable for the sin of our remote progenitors, we are still fallen creatures and our relationship with God is damaged. Like a spouse who has been hurt by adultery, forgiveness comes long before trust. Lives must change. Promises must be kept. It is not enough to recognize and confess sin. We must turn from it, be sorrowful because of it, willing to repair the damage done to relationships by it, and resolute to avoid it in the future.

God, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and burning with love for us, wishes for us to return to Him with our whole hearts. We should assemble ourselves, from the youngest to the oldest, and fast, weep, and mourn for our sins. Then He shall have mercy on us. (Joel 2:12-19)

Lenten practices have changed and developed over time. Current teaching is to observe a fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Also, on those days and all Fridays of Lent, we are to abstain from eating the meat of warm-blooded animals. It is also customary to give up something cherished as a sacrifice. Some people give up favorite foods. Others avoid idols in their lives, such as television. A few donate time or money to charities. Fasting helps us to focus on the Lord. Sacrifice helps us to gain control of our desires. Charity shows us that giving is its own reward.

When performing acts of penance there is a great danger of falling into self-righteousness. The world sees our actions and judges not only us but the whole Church. We are not to practice our piety before men in order to be seen by them. Those who do so have surely received their reward. (Matthew 6:1-21). How are we to act so as to avoid this sin? While fasting, sacrifice, and charity are noble actions and good works, without which faith is barren, they are not an end unto themselves. They are only effective when they are part of an inner conversion. To convert means to turn away. For our Lenten penances to be righteous, we must be turning away from our sin, our idols, and our selfish selves. All of the private works in the world will do us no good if we do not reject wickedness, free the oppressed, visit the imprisoned, feed the hungry, satisfy the thirsty, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, and care for the sick. (Isaiah 58:6-7, Matthew 25:31-46)

Throughout our lives, we sin in thought, word, and deed; through what we have done and what we have failed to do. In the end, all we can offer in defense are our faith (or lack thereof) and the works we did (or neglected to do) in the name of our Savior. That very Savior stands before the judgment seat in our stead and covers our sins in the sight of the Father so that we might be found worthy. How can we begin to be thankful for such an undeserved gift? Let us follow the Church’s example and on bended knee pray as King David prayed in Psalm 51, contrite and sorrowful for our sins and joyful in the promise of God’s forgiveness.

Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy steadfast love;
according to thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in thy sight,
so that thou art justified in thy sentence and blameless in thy judgment.
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.
Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Fill me with joy and gladness; let the bones which thou hast broken rejoice.
Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from thy presence, and take not thy holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of thy salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors thy ways, and sinners will return to thee.
Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of thy deliverance.
O Lord, open thou my lips, and my mouth shall show forth thy praise.
For thou hast no delight in sacrifice;
were I to give a burnt offering, thou wouldst not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
Do good to Zion in thy good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
then wilt thou delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on thy altar.


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About Funky Dung

Who is Funky Dung? 29-year-old grad student in Intelligent Systems (A.I.) at the University of Pittsburgh. I consider myself to be politically moderate and independent and somewhere between a traditional and neo-traditional Catholic. I was raised Lutheran, spent a number of years as an agnostic, and joined the Catholic Church at the 2000 Easter Vigil. Why Funky Dung? I haven't been asked this question nearly as many times as you or I might expect. Funky Dung is a reference to an obscure Pink Floyd song. On the album Atom Heart Mother, there is a track called Atom Heart Mother Suite. It's broken up into movements, like a symphony, and one of the movements is called Funky Dung. I picked that nickname a long time ago (while I was still in high school I think), shortly after getting an internet connection for the first time. To me it means "cool/neat/groovy/spiffy stuff/crap/shiznit", as in "That's some cool stuff, dude!" Whence Ales Rarus? I used to enjoy making people guess what this means, but I've decided to relent and make it known to all. Ales Rarus is a Latin play on words. "Avis rarus" means "a rare bird" and carries similar meaning to "an odd fellow". "Ales" is another Latin word for bird that carries connotations of omens, signs of the times, and/or augery. If you want to get technical, both "avis" and "ales" are feminine (requiring "rara", but they can be made masculine in poetry (which tends to breaks lots of rules). I decided I'd rather have a masculine name in Latin. ;) Yeah, I'm a nerd. So what? :-P Wherefore blog? It is my intention to "teach in order to lead others to faith" by being always "on the lookout for occasions of announcing Christ by word, either to unbelievers . . . or to the faithful" through the "use of the communications media". I also act knowing that I "have the right and even at times a duty to manifest to the sacred pastors [my] opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church, and [I] have a right to make [my] opinion known to the other Christian faithful, with due regard to the integrity of faith and morals and reverence toward [my and their] pastors, and with consideration for the common good and the dignity of persons." (adapted from CCC 904-907) Statement of Faith I have been baptized and confirmed in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I, therefore, renounce Satan; I renounce all his works; I renounce all his allurements. I hold and profess all that is contained in the Apostles' Creed, the Niceno- Constantinopolitan Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. Having been buried with Christ unto death and raised up with him unto a new life, I promise to live no longer for myself or for that world which is the enemy of God but for him who died for me and rose again, serving God, my heavenly Father, faithfully and unto death in the holy Catholic Church. I am obedient to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. That is, I promote and defend authentic Catholic Teaching and Faith in union with Christ and His Church and in union with the Holy Father, the Bishop of Rome, the Successor of St. Peter. Thanks be unto Thee, O my God, for all Thy infinite goodness, and, especially, for the love Thou hast shown unto me at my Confirmation. I Give Thee thanks that Thou didst then send down Thy Holy Spirit unto my soul with all His gifts and graces. May He take full possession of me for ever. May His divine unction cause my face to shine. May His heavenly wisdom reign in my heart. May His understanding enlighten my darkness. May His counsel guide me. May His knowledge instruct me. May His piety make me fervent. May His divine fear keep me from all evil. Drive from my soul, O Lord, all that may defile it. Give me grace to be Thy faithful soldier, that having fought the good fight of faith, I may be brought to the crown of everlasting life, through the merits of Thy dearly beloved Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. Behind the Curtain: an Interview With Funky Dung (Thursday, March 03, 2005) I try to avoid most memes that make their way 'round the blogosphere (We really do need a better name, don't we?), but some are worth participating in. Take for instance the "interview game" that's the talk o' the 'sphere. I think it's a great way to get to know the people in neighborhood. Who are the people in your neighborhood? In your neighborhod? In your neigh-bor-hoo-ood...*smack* Sorry, Sesame Street flashback. Anyhow, I saw Jeff "Curt Jester" Miller's answers and figured since he's a regular reader of mine he'd be a good interviewer. Without further ado, here are my answers to his questions. 1. Being that your pseudonym Funky Dung was chosen from a Pink Floyd track on Atom Heart Mother, what is you favorite Pink Floyd song and why? Wow. That's a tuffy. It's hard to pick out a single favorite. Pink Floyd isn't really a band known for singles. They mostly did album rock and my appreciation of them is mostly of a gestalt nature. If I had to pick one, though, it'd be "Comfortably Numb". I get chills up my spine every time I hear it and if it's been long enough since the last time, I get midty-eyed. I really don't know why. That's a rather unsatisfying answer for an interview, so here are the lyrics to a Rush song. It's not their best piece of music, but the lyrics describe me pretty well.

New World Man He's a rebel and a runner He's a signal turning green He's a restless young romantic Wants to run the big machine He's got a problem with his poisons But you know he'll find a cure He's cleaning up his systems To keep his nature pure Learning to match the beat of the old world man Learning to catch the heat of the third world man He's got to make his own mistakes And learn to mend the mess he makes He's old enough to know what's right But young enough not to choose it He's noble enough to win the world But weak enough to lose it --- He's a new world man... He's a radio receiver Tuned to factories and farms He's a writer and arranger And a young boy bearing arms He's got a problem with his power With weapons on patrol He's got to walk a fine line And keep his self-control Trying to save the day for the old world man Trying to pave the way for the third world man He's not concerned with yesterday He knows constant change is here today He's noble enough to know what's right But weak enough not to choose it He's wise enough to win the world But fool enough to lose it --- He's a new world man...
2. What do you consider your most important turning point from agnosticism to the Catholic Church. At some point in '99, I started attending RCIA at the Pittsburgh Oratory. I mostly went to ask a lot of obnoxious Protestant questions. Or at least that's what I told myself. I think deep down I wanted desperately to have faith again. At that point I think I'd decided that if any variety of Christianity had the Truth, the Catholic Church did. Protestantism's wholesale rejection of 1500 years of tradition didn't sit well with me, even as a former Lutheran. During class one week, Sister Bernadette Young (who runs the program) passed out thin booklet called "Handbook for Today's Catholic". One paragraph in that book spoke to me and I nearly cried as I read it.
"A person who is seeking deeper insight into reality may sometimes have doubts, even about God himself. Such doubts do not necessarily indicate lack of faith. They may be just the opposite - a sign of growing faith. Faith is alive and dynamic. It seeks, through grace, to penetrate into the very mystery of God. If a particular doctrine of faith no longer 'makes sense' to a person, the person should go right on seeking. To know what a doctrine says is one thing. To gain insight into its meaning through the gift of understanding is something else. When in doubt, 'Seek and you will find.' The person who seeks y reading, discussing, thinking, or praying eventually sees the light. The person who talks to God even when God is 'not there' is alive with faith."
At the end of class I told Sr. Bernadette that I wanted to enter the Church at the next Easter vigil. 3. If you were a tree what kind of, oh sorry about that .. what is the PODest thing you have ever done? I set up WikiIndex, a clearinghouse for reviews of theological books, good, bad, and ugly. It has a long way to go, but it'll be cool when it's finished. :) 4. What is your favorite quote from Venerable John Henry Newman? "Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt." 5. If you could ban one hymn from existence, what would it be? That's a tough one. As a member of the Society for a Moratorium on the Music of Marty Haugen and David Haas, there are obviously a lot of songs that grate on my nerves. If I had to pick one, though, I'd probably pick "Sing of the Lord's Goodness" by Ernie Sands.

3 thoughts on “Remember That You Are Dust, And To Dust You Shall Return

  1. edey

    honestly, i think it has to do with “cultural Catholicism”, just like i doubt it was only the practicing who ate fish on fridays.

  2. Pingback: Advil on Ash Wednesday @ Ales Rarus

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