On Charon's Wharf

The morning Mass at Boston College, that usually brings together 15 to 20 people, today saw 40 to 50 gather. The noon Mass at the parish where I live usually assembles 20 to 30 people. Today there were 140.

It is no secret that Ash Wednesday is a holy day, not by episcopal injunction, but by popular celebration. But what is the secret of the secret? Can it be the liberating confrontation with our mortality in a culture often bent on denying it? "Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return!"

It is always moving to bless with ashes the diverse faces who come forward: mothers with babies, teenagers, the robust, the infirm, the worried, the wrinkled: all of us united in common humanity and common faith: all of us "On Charon's Wharf."

The late Andre Dubus has an essay of that title that I re-read each Lent. He writes:

Since we are all terminally ill, each breath and step and day one closer to the last, I must consider those sacraments which soothe our passage...This morning I received the sacrament I still believe in: at seven-fifteen the priest eleveated the host, then the chalice, and spoke the words of the ritual, and the bread became flesh, and the wine became blood, and minutes later I placed on my tongue the taste of forgiveness and of love, that affirmed, perhaps celebrated, my being alive, my being mortal. This has nothing to do with immortality, with eternity; I love the earth too much to contemplate a life apart from it, although I believe in that life. No, this has to do with mortality and the touch of flesh, and my belief in the sacrament of the Eucharist is simple: without touch, God is a monologue, an idea, a philosophy; he must touch and be touched, the tongue on flesh, and that touch is the result of the monologues, the idea, the philosophies which led to faith; but in the instant of the touch there is no place for thinking, for talking; the silent touch affirms all that, and goes deeper: it affirms the mysteries of love and mortality.

"Remember that you are dust and that you are loved!"

Robert P. Imbelli, a long-time Commonweal contributor, is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. A book of essays in his honor, The Center Is Jesus Christ Himself, edited by Andrew Meszaros, was published this year by The Catholic University of America Press.

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