Rita Ferrone’s much-appreciated reflection on catechizing and preparing lay ministers for the distribution of ashes has put me in mind of a couple of humorous anecdotes connected with that rite.
First, from Father Victor Lee Austin, Theologian-in-Residence at the Church of Saint Thomas, Fifth Avenue, in New York City:
Brian, a Dominican friend, once told of distributing ashes beside an old tottering priest who couldn’t remember the words. He was going from forehead to forehead saying, “This won’t hurt, and it might do some good.”
The second comes from my own experience. When I was working on my M.A. in Liturgical Studies at Saint John’s School of Theology·Seminary in Collegeville, MN, I would attended the Ash Wednesday liturgy in the neighboring Saint John’s Abbey Church. The year that Spring Break coincided with the beginning of Lent, the entire assembly sat in the monastic choir; I ended up beside an elderly monk who has since entered into eternal rest. He was a fine, friendly and truly holy man, but not strong of short-term memory.
The distribution took place in the choir, with terra cotta vessels of ashes being passed from person to person, stall to stall, with each ministering to her or his neighbor. Now this good monk had heard or read that the formula for distribution was to be the second option in the Ordinary Form, “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel”; but he was clearly attached to the older, “Remember you are dust, to dust you shall return.” Making a clear effort to remember the formula, he turned to me; lightly tracing the mark of mortality and resurrection on my forehead with the grainy ash, he declared:
“Remember you are dust, and turn away from the Gospel.”