The celebration of Ash Wednesday solemnly marks the start of the Lenten season. The dictum, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” reminds us of the need for penance and humility but also the grace that allows us to be forgiven. Ashes represent a symbol of our faith and serve as a reminder of the human condition. The 20th century theologian Paul Tillich describes these characteristics of a symbol:
It opens up levels of reality which otherwise are closed for us. All arts create symbols for a level of reality which cannot be reached in any other way. A picture and a poem reveal elements of reality which cannot be approached scientifically. In the creative work of art we encounter reality in a dimension which is closed for us without such works…it not only opens up dimensions and elements of reality which otherwise would remain unapproachable but also unlocks dimensions and elements of our soul which correspond to the dimensions and elements of reality…there are within us dimensions of which we cannot become aware except through symbols, as melodies and rhythms in music.(Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper & Row, 1957)
In a similar way, every Lent we gather embers as a way of inviting ourselves to ponder a reality that is beyond us while also reflecting on what is within our very being. Recognizing we are flawed sinful beings is not meant to be a form of psychological punishment; it is an affirmation of our faith and connection with one another. Like the cross at Easter or manger during Advent, ashes function as a powerful signpost on our spiritual journey. They remind us to take a spiritual inventory of where we’ve fallen short in words and deeds. But they also remind us what our shared humanity demands of us once when we wash them from our foreheads.
It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!