Catholics will soon celebrate the centuries-old observance known as Ash Wednesday. Most of us will go to Mass, and in the middle of it we’ll be signed with the mark of burnt palm. Some will just file through, receive ashes, and then head for the door. However short the ritual, every year we’re reminded of its power.
Along with the imposition of ashes, there’s also a set of words addressed by the distributor. Most adult Catholics could probably quote the formula: “Remember, O human being, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Most would probably say “man,” but that misses the meaning of the original Latin homo, which refers to the entire species of humanity, and the Hebrew adam, which resonates with the word adamah, meaning the dirt of the earth.)
Taking the formula outside of its liturgical context, there is nothing specifically Christian about the words. Many religious and philosophical traditions share similar wisdom about human mortality. In the Roman Catholic Church, these words were originally addressed to public penitents engaged in a sort of “RCIA in reverse.” Having failed at their first attempt at Christian conversion by sinning publicly, they were made to prepare for ritual expulsion from the assembly (and from the church building itself) in order to meditate outside on what life without community and without God might feel like.
But that penitential ritual is unknown to most people today. Thus the original import of the command is lost. I suspect that as we’re reminded of our “dust” today we hear a stern invitation to straighten out our moral lives, or else suffer a terrifying fate. It’s more threats and guilt than Good News.
Maybe that’s why the post-Vatican II liturgical reforms—though less venerable than the old formula—give us another option for Ash Wednesday. “Turn away from sin, and be faithful to the gospel” (1974) and “Repent and believe in the Gospel” (2011) are both direct translations of Mark 1:15. Not only is this formula more distinctively Christian; it’s also immediately recognizable as a direct quote from Jesus himself. The context here is also easier for modern Catholics to grasp: the command comes at the beginning of Jesus's ministry of preaching and healing. It urges us not to focus fearfully on our individual sinfulness, but rather to believe in the Good News of freedom and salvation.