A while ago, I was in Paris on Ash Wednesday and received ashes in Notre Dame cathedral.
Here, in the US, the ashes are generally black. We like to make a visible mark with them, one that lasts.
There, the ashes were gray. They did not make an enduring mark. In a short time, they blew away.
But really, it was I who was blown away. I was stunned by what this incarnation of the sign was saying. Dust does not make a lasting mark. It blows away. It is inconsequential.
“Remember, you are dust.”
The radical nature of the sign was captured in its very impermanence. We are dust. The worldly things on which we pride ourselves — our bodies, our possessions — all will pass away. God alone endures.
Where the sign then takes us is to the point of decision: Since this is so, what are you going to do?
Turn to God, the liturgy urges. Repent of your sins while there is still time. Find the truth that matters.
The seriously lightweight ashes were a great deal more frightening, to be honest, in what they suggested about my life and the lives of everyone around me.
Nevertheless, the liturgy is a kind of pivot. It confronts us in ritual with our radical contingency, but it does not stop there. By so doing, it awakens our longing for something more — something we cannot make or do for ourselves. It is the longing to find ourselves in relationship to the eternal God. This is what “turns us around,” restoring us to sanity and hope.
I found myself wondering if the paradox of Ash Wednesday (that grappling with our nothingness propels us into an encounter with light and hope quite beyond what we can conjure up for ourselves) has been somewhat blunted by my common experience of the dark and lasting cross I usually take home on my forehead from the Ash Wednesday observance.
The black ashes have always reminded me of sin. Never of impermanence.