In diem cinerum Anno Domini MMVII
Today, we begin again our annual journey of fasting and prayer, to prepare ourselves for the ultimate mysteries of the life of Christ. Today our foreheads are anointed with the sign of the cross, fashioned with the black dust of ashes. Today is a day of confession, a day of penitence, and a day of mortality. We confess today our sins to God, the sins which every single one of us has committed, abundantly and grievously, against Him and against our neighbors, against His Love and against the love we owe to Him and our neighbors, against His Grace which we he has so mercifully sent to us but that we have so brazenly rejected. In donning today the ashes, the sign of penitence, the sign of our profound poverty as sinful human beings, we approach the altar of God, marked in our contrition. It is a penance that we owe to God, “for the fierce anger of the Lord is not turned back from us,” (Jeremiah 4:8). Therefore, “O daughter of my people, gird thee with sackcloth, and wallow thyself in ashes,” (Jeremiah 6:26), and “O Jerusalem, wash thine heart from wickedness, that thou mayest be saved!” (Jeremiah 4:14). Finally, today is a day of our mortality. Memento homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris— Remember, Man, that thou art dust, and unto dust shalt thou return. Indeed, today we remember that we men are mortal, destined to quit this tired life. All too soon will our bodies turn to ash, and so with ash do we anoint ourselves, recalling also that these frail bodies perched on the razor’s edge between life and death are not our own, nor is the life with which we animate them, but that we have this life only by the grace of the Creator.
Our confession today is also the confession of the death of Christ. We take the ashes today in the form of the cross, professing thereby that it was Jesus Christ who hung from the Cross, and that it was our very sins that nailed Him to that tree. We lay ourselves penitent, as did the Magdalene, before His feet, and as we anoint ourselves with the filthy ashes and dust of the earth, so we anoint Him with the ointment from the precious jar. We remember today that, as man is mortal, so, too, Our Lord Jesus Christ suffered death on that Cross. His body lay, stiff and lifeless, in the frigid tomb, as, too, shall our bodies at the end of our mortal toil.
Yet, today is also a day for the remission of sins, a day for the salvation of souls. This confession we make, this penitence we perform, this mortality of which we are so starkly reminded, are not the end of this day. No, they are but the beginning, for we confess our sins and repent of them, that God might have mercy upon our souls, quia multum misericors est dimittere peccati nostri Deus noster— because Our God is much merciful to remit our sins. We recall also that, though it is our sins that pin Our Lord to the Noble Tree, it is yet His Love by which three days thence He burst the door of that dark tomb, leaving it empty for all the world to see that by death He had destroyed death and returned unto us eternal life. Indeed, humiliated by our own wretchedness, we shall yet be lifted up: we know that Our Redeemer liveth, and that at the latter day he shall stand upon the earth. So, too, we know that our own mortal bodies, though they shall now wither in death, yet shall they, too, be raised up at the latter day. The ashes we wear today as a sign of our own mortality have yet been sprinkled with that Holy Water in which we were baptized, in which we have already died to sin and been reborn, indelibly marked with the sign of the Risen Christ.
As mournfully as we walk through the valley of tears when, penitent and lowly, our heads receive that mark, we yet approach today the altar not once, but twice. When we come again to the Lord’s Table, we come to receive His True Body and True Blood, not dead but immanently alive, the bread and wine become the immortal flesh of the God-Made-Man. Even as is come to us today the day of penitence, so, too, is come to us today, as is come every day in the Eucharist, the day-spring from on high, to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet in the way of peace.
The Peace of the Lord be with you all, my dear readers, and take heart today that, though we are unworthy that the Lord should come under our roofs, yet he has spoken the Word that our souls might be healed.