A cross is marked on the forehead of a woman during Ash Wednesday Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City Feb. 14, 2018. (CNS photo/Adrees Latif, Reuters)

This essay was originally published in February 2020.

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.

The command urges us not to focus fearfully on our individual sinfulness, but rather to believe in the Good News of freedom and salvation.

The newer Marcan formula, with its emphasis on initiation (and therefore baptism), also binds us more deeply to the faith journeys of those entering the church for the first time at Easter. As RCIA #138 says, “in the liturgy and liturgical catechesis of Lent the reminder of baptism already received or the preparation for its reception, as well as the theme of repentance, renew the entire community along with those being prepared to celebrate…initiation.”

All of us, new Christians and old, are sinners in need of repentance. Acknowledging that fact is the only condition God places on the availability of divine mercy and reconciliation. And so, like those approaching the baptismal font, the fragrant chrism, and the Eucharistic table for the first time, we too need to begin Lent with an invitation from Jesus himself.

Every three years in Cycle A, and every year that catechumens are preparing for Easter initiation, we hear three great transformative episodes from Jesus’s ministry on the middle Sundays in Lent. Through them we’re reminded of how fidelity to the Gospel transforms us. Like the Samaritan woman at the well, we find that the power to turn away from sin rises from a well of living water springing up within us. Like the man born blind, we intuit that Jesus alone can open our eyes to see the deepest truth of ourselves. And, like Lazarus and his grieving sisters, we learn that God’s love conquers even death.

I would suggest therefore that this year the distributors of ashes should first reflect upon which formula they are going to use. In terms of the church’s liturgical tradition, the Marcan formula may not be as ancient. But it’s much richer. I have never forgotten the year when the distributor looked at me and asked: “Will you turn from sin and be faithful to the gospel?” “Amen,” I said. It was the response to Jesus’s invitation that I had been wishing to make without knowing it.

Michael H. Marchal is a retired teacher and writes frequently on liturgy and literature.

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