Published March 2, 2022
When Catholics attend Mass each Ash Wednesday, marking the start of Lent, the priest makes a cross of ashes on each person’s forehead and says one of two phrases: “Repent and believe in the Gospel” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
I’ve always found myself slightly disappointed when the priest chooses the former, just like I’ve always been disappointed when he makes barely a smudge out of the ashes rather than a heavy and bold black cross. When it comes to this season of penance, it feels fitting to start off strong, even if our efforts flag along the way.
When I was living in New York City, Ash Wednesday was one of my favorite days of the year, because it enabled me to offer a covert nod to anyone I spotted sporting the cross on the subway; usually, there were fewer nods than I had hoped. But by some accounts, more Catholics attend Mass on Ash Wednesday each year than on Christmas or Easter, a striking testament to how much this tangible sign of our humanity means to us when we accept it and wrestle with it.
Several aspects of the Ash Wednesday blessing are particularly striking. The first is where the ashes originate: They’re made of the blessed, fresh palms that Catholics hold during Palm Sunday Mass just before Good Friday and Easter the previous year, commemorating Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem ahead of his Passion and death. The ashes, in other words, are a reminder that his triumphant arrival to great acclaim swiftly became his crucifixion, thanks to our sinful nature. But they’re also, paradoxically, a reminder of the resurrection — it is for this reason that the priest applies them in the shape of a cross.All Our Opinion in Your Inbox
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The Ash Wednesday blessing (especially in its more straightforward “remember that you are dust” form) is also a reminder of a reality that the modern world would just as soon forget: Death is real, and “living forever” isn’t going to happen in the way that many around us seem to think it might if only we try hard enough. This is a radical statement in a society convinced that a combination of intense exercise, “clean” eating, regular meditation, medical advancements, and plastic surgery can keep us going forever.
We witnessed the working out of this belief in a unique way during the Covid pandemic and lockdowns, when many responded to this potentially fatal disease as if, with the right combination of prevention and cure, we could collectively avoid the reality of death. When I mentioned on Twitter shortly after the pandemic began that some of the more extreme examples of Covid panic might be attributed to a lack of belief in life after death, the response I received was extreme. Some people even accused me of belonging to a “death cult” — not a new accusation for a Christian.
That’s because, in the view of the modern world, when death inevitably comes, it is seen as a total failure. And, to be sure, death is evil. It’s a consequence of sin, not an invention of God. But it’s a reality nonetheless, and not an avoidable one. Grappling with the fact that death is real — and that its reality demands of us a certain sort of life — has always been a hallmark of Christianity. Some saints have been known especially for their devotion to the Latin phrase memento mori, remember your death. St. Jerome kept a skull on his desk as a tangible reminder of this reality.
It might seem morbid, but at least it’s honest. None of us profits from pretending that suffering and death won’t come; when they do, we are better off for having prepared. And, most important, we can’t properly reflect on our death without recalling our faith in eternal life — perhaps that’s why the thought of death so repels those who don’t have that faith. The purpose of remembering our death isn’t to trap ourselves in a state of constant depression but rather to remind ourselves to value what time we have left, to live it well, and to be well prepared for what comes “like a thief in the night.”
Ash Wednesday doesn’t require us to deny the sadness of death or the pain of losing loved ones. Nor does it mean that we should despise and neglect our earthly bodies — far from it. Though it might seem gloomy, remembering our death in the context of Catholic theology is actually meant to bring us hope. While death is inescapable, it has also been redeemed. That’s the promise of Easter, and of the death and resurrection that transformed every death into life.
Alexandra DeSanctis is a staff writer for National Review and a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.