Returning to dust is not the ultimate chapter of our lives.
I know you remember these words from the little rhyme "Ring around the Rosie" or sometimes known as “Ring a Ring o' Roses”. While there are several variations of the rhyme the first version to appear in print was from Kate Greenaway's 1881 edition of Mother Goose.
A pocket full of posies;
We all fall down.
In the liturgy for Ash Wednesday we are marked with ashes and we hear the words: “Dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return."
As a priest, I always feel awkward pronouncing these words over little children. In their innocence it seems too soon to be reminding them of their mortality. Yet even young children understand something of death when perhaps a beloved household pet dies. They too understand that something final has occurred. “Ashes, ashes we all fall down.”
Why do we begin Lent in this manner? Did we not just 8 weeks ago celebrate the wonder of Christ’s coming into the World? More recently, on Valentine’s Day, lovers celebrate romance and affection for one another. So why do we turn now to death and dying.
In 1974, Ernest Becker received the Pulitzer Prize for his thoughtful analysis of death and how the knowledge of it shapes human endeavor. He said that reflection upon our own mortality leads to a richer life.
For the next forty days we will reflect together not only upon our own mortality, but the impending Passion of Christ, his death and resurrection. Marking our foreheads with ashes is the beginning of that reflection.
Yes, “ashes, ashes we all fall down” is the penultimate chapter in our human story, for we are dust and to dust we shall return, but no, it is not the ultimate chapter.
Fr. Larry Blake
Chaplain & Director, Office for Campus Ministry