Life from Ashes

Whenever I receive ashes at Catholic Mass on Ash Wednesday, I often find my mind wandering far from the words that the priest professes as he anoints my forehead. After all, much like the Our Father or Lamb of God, I have heard the words so many times before that I take them for granted, and I miss the message that God is delivering to me. Instead of contemplating how utterly humbling the phrase “you are dust” is, my mind drifts to more trivial matters: Will I be blessed with ashes in the shape of a cross, or just a faint smudge? Am I seriously going to be able to go 46 days without eating any ice cream? Is breaking my fast on Sunday considered cheating?

However, this year I have made it my goal to be fully present at Mass when I receive my ashes, and I urge you to do the same this Wednesday, whether you are religious or not. I urge you to meditate on what being made of dust really means, especially from a pro-life perspective.

All too often, pro-abortion advocates argue that there is something, anything different about a fetus just a few weeks after conception as opposed to a few months after conception. They argue that at such an early stage, the fetus is “just a bunch of cells.” The claim goes that, since the child does not yet have a heartbeat, it is not “technically” alive. Of course, the problem arises in deciding exactly when a fetus can be considered alive– is there a specific point, perhaps two months, five days, twelve minutes, and 15 seconds into development, when the fetus spontaneously comes to life? Or, more likely, is it actually alive from the moment in which the sperm enters the egg and the cellular process begins, causing the embryo to begin dividing, metabolizing nutrients, and transcribing and translating its unique DNA into proteins?

Yes, the fetus is just a bunch of cells. But (as Andrew mentioned in our previous blog post), so are we.

Ash Wednesday calls us to remember that in the end, we are all nothing more than dust: an assortment of carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and other elements. It’s only when we humble ourselves into remembering this that we realize there is no difference between the dust we are at two weeks into development from the dust we are five, ten, or forty years into that constant development that is life.

Today also reminds us that life is fleeting, and one day we will all return to the earth from which we arose. Indeed, Shakespeare said it best when he imagined even a God-like figure such as Julius Caesar dying, returning to clay, and being used to stop a winter draft in a house: 

Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.
Oh, that that earth, which kept the world in awe,
Should patch a wall t’ expel the winter’s flaw!

His words have a haunting beauty, a poetic horror, and so do the words spoken at Mass. In this way, Ash Wednesday reminds us to value life in all its forms and at every stage – from conception to natural death – because  it is a miracle that it exists at all and, one day, it will be over, and we will again return simply to dust.

Havens Clark

COL ’20

On-Campus Service Chair

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