The encouragement that usually accompanies the imposition of Ash Wednesday ashes is “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” But when I was a child the exhortation was a bit more sombre: “Remember man that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” For some reason it is this latter mantra that runs through my head every Ash Wednesday.
Yesterday as I burnt last year’s Palm Sunday branches to make the ashes for today’s Masses at Cheviot, Amberley and Culverden, I was very aware that yesterday and today mark the anniversaries of my parents’ deaths six and seven years ago.
We are also united in these hours in our prayer for our Bishop Barry Jones as he is moved to palliative care and nearing the end of his life on earth.
The sombre reflection remembering that our bodies will return to dust is totally appropriate for the start of the Lenten season and the reception of ashes. So many of the projects and possessions we are attached to are doing little to bring us the depth of earthly happiness that we so desperately seek.
The day after my father’s funeral I returned to my parents’ grave. I sat there for some time, overwhelmed by the simplicity of their last resting place; a simple wooden cross with a name, and the green cross that had rested on dad’s coffin during the Funeral Mass. A couple of days later the cross of green branches was also dead.
While I felt sadness at their grave, and still do whenever I visit, that day after the funeral I remember a deep joy as I knew beyond all doubt that both my father and mother were now in God’s kind keeping, and I joyfully prayed that they were able to accept the fullness of God’s welcome and embrace for eternity.
Later today I will post a video clip from Pope Francis’ most recent audience when he spoke about the “Sign of the Cross.” For those of us who are baptised the cross of Jesus marks a radical change in the way we view death. For us, death is not an end but a transition into eternity where we are offered the fullness of all that we seek on earth.
Yes, the bodies of all of us will return to dust. But even this earthly dust will be re-formed at God’s invitation and with our co-operation, into the fulness of the life that we have been created for.
As Monsignor Tom Liddy, well known priest of the diocese of Christchurch Diocese who died in January 2001 wrote as the heading on his Last Will and Testament:
My soul to God
My body to the earth,
May they be in God’s kind keeping
until the day of the resurrection.
Let us pray too for each other: that these forty days of Lent may be a true spring-time of faith for us, our families, parishes and communities, and for our whole world.
cross on the grave of
Cornelius Michael O’Connor 23 February 1935 – 9 February 2010
Evelyn Mary O’Connor 26 August 1938 – 10 February 2009
may they rest in peace.