And then God said to mankind, “YOLO!” Well, not really, but something like that. My students enjoy a new sort of saying today (You Only Live Once) that I believe is very true, although we have a very different way of interpreting its meaning. While my students will use it to justify irresponsible action that is potentially harmful to themselves and others, I believe that it is a wake-up call to love and accountability. That we only have one life to live is a painful reminder that life is short and it’s time to examine ourselves to discern whether what we are doing is consistent with the will of God.
St. Paul tells the Romans, “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.” (12:2) We are not the Creator, after all, but the creature. We were created by God and for God, and find our true happiness only in His will.
Our Church celebrates this reminder of our mortality and the brevity of life on Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of our 40-Day Lenten journey of transformation. My students say Y.O.L.O., but Scripture says it like this:
- GN 2:5-7 When God made the earth and the heavens—He formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being.
- GEN 18:27 Abraham speaks to God and says, “See how I am presuming to speak to my Lord, though I am but dust and ashes!”
- PS 90:3 God says through the psalmist, “You return to dust, “Return, you mortals!.”
- PS 104:29 When God hides His face, we are lost. When He takes away our breath, we perish and return to the dust from which we came.
- ECCL 3:20 We are made from the dust, and to the dust we return.
In all these different ways God’s Word is a consistent reminder that we will not be on this earth forever–in fact, but for a short time! No one will make it out of here physically alive. Everyone you’ve known, everyone you know, and everyone you will know will ultimately “return to the dust.” This became painfully obvious to me when visiting Terceira, one of the Azores Islands, when I was a boy. I visited our family’s burial plot next to the old church. It was not fancy and very, very small. People had been buried in this tiny plot, about the size of a quarter of a football field, for generations. There were bones everywhere (hence the term “bone yard”) as each new generation reused the same plot to bury their dead where the previous generation had buried the ones that they loved years before. My friends, in short time we all return to dust.
The most common response I hear to why people get ashes on Wednesday is, “Well, I’m Catholic.” The conversation with the co-worker goes something like this, “What’s on your forehead?”
“Oh, those are Ashes.”
“That’s kind of weird. Why do you have ashes on your head?”
“Well, it’s Ash Wednesday, and I’m Catholic, so we’re supposed to get ashes today.”
I’m told that short of only Christmas and Easter, more Catholics attend Ash Wednesday services, than any other time of the year. The crazy thing is that Ash Wednesday is not even a Holy Day of Obligation, as are all Sundays and Holy Days of the year. Why would so many people get to Church before work, on their lunch break, or after work just to get ashes that many know nothing about? A cynical friend of mine assures me that it’s because that’s the only day the Church gives out anything for free!
Or maybe it’s because down deep we know that the teaching is true. We are prone to sickness, disease, brokenness, and death. We see it on the news, experience it in our towns, our schools, and in our families. WE ARE HUMAN and will die, but we have also been MADE DIVINE and the Spirit of God lives in us, and so we too are eternal.
Where we spend our eternity, either with God or separated from God, hangs in the delicate balance of how we choose to live our lives for this brief time on earth. We can either choose life and love, or brokenness and death. And we choose it with every decision we make, with every word and deed. Our bodies have come from the earth and will return to it, and none of us knows when. How should we live in light of the shortness of life and the great length of eternity? Reflect upon that as you receive your ashes today. God Bless.