In his meditations on the liturgical year the saintly Bishop Richard Challoner recalls an important lesson found in the texts of today’s Mass. In the reading from the prophet Joel the Lord God calls us to conversion: Be converted to me with all your heart, in fasting, and in weeping, and in mourning; the ashes we receive are a sign of that—‘an emblem of contrition and humility’— and thus an exterior reminder of an interior disposition. To receive the ashes is to give expression to a spiritual reality which is presumed to exist in us; by bearing the mark of the ashes we affirm something that (at least in theory) is already present in our lives.
In her wisdom, however, the Church knows that we fall short of this ideal and so recalls us to the standard demanded of us by baptism through the stark character of this Lenten season. The ash we receive, which Bishop Challoner calls ‘a remembrance of our mortality, of our frail composition, and of our hasty return to our mother earth’, is a sign of the death we deserve; a reminder of the result of sin and the vacuum that exists by our rejection of the Lord’s grace. Yet we receive those ashes in the sign of the cross. They are a bitter warning, but by them is also revealed the means of our salvation. As the baptismal font is both the tomb of our death to sin and the place of our birth into eternal life, so by accepting these ashes as a memento mori we are enjoined to embrace that which itself kills sin and returns us to the Lord, and to the unending life he offers.