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Ashes to Ashes

Ashes to Ashes

by David G. Duggan ©
February 2023

A friend just received ashes for the first time. I won't give her name or her age--simply to say that like me she is in Biblical "bonus time."

My friend is not alone among Christians who have never received the imposition of ashes. My mother practically boasted that she had never worn them. Perhaps she didn't want to be reminded of her mortality. Perhaps she didn't feel the need to show her faith. Perhaps she didn't want to smear her makeup. Her ashes are now immured in the columbarium of the parish where she worshiped for 45 years.

Imposition is an odd word for a religious rite. With outstretched palms we receive holy communion. With bowed head we receive the laying on of the hands of forgiveness. With pinched nose or upraised visage we receive our baptism. But ashes are imposed with no action from us; we need not even kneel before the minister with dust-flocked thumb as he traces the sign of the cross on our foreheads. Most of us would bridle at the notion that anything in the Christian faith is imposed on us, but there it is.

"Remember, O Man, that thou art dust, and unto dust shalt thou return," reads the ancient version of the prayer intoned while the smudge is laid. Now de-gendered and shortened--"you are dust and to dust you will return," the prayer has lost its solemnity. But even then, we cannot escape the meaning: our passage on this earth is but dust in the wind.

A smudged forehead is no more proof of salvation than a piece of bread or a sip of wine. But it is an assurance that the God who created us from the dust--the detritus of His creation--loves us enough that from our ashes He will continue to create new believers.

David Duggan is a retired attorney living in Chicago

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