It may seem surprising to say, but Ash Wednesday is one of my favorite holy days. The liturgical readings are so rich that they roll around on the tongue and create mental images of ancient pageantry. Blow the trumpet in Zion! proclaim a fast, call an assembly; gather the people, notify the congregation; assemble the elders, gather the children and the infants at the breast….” We’re called to an incredible opportunity for joyful penance and reconciliation.
Among that tradition-filled language there is the very simple reminder as ashes are imposed on our foreheads:
“From dust you came and to dust you shall return.”
And for me that conjures a much more prosaic image – the character of Pig Pen from the world of Peanuts. He’s such a placid little boy who has come to be called by his physical characteristic – he is constantly surrounded by a cloud of dust. Despite his outward appearance, he carries himself with dignity, because as he gravely says, he carries the “dust of countless ages.” I often feel like Pig Pen in that I carry around, if not the “dust of countless ages,” the personal “dust” of my life. Like Pig Pen, no matter how many times I try, through penance, reconciliation and determined acts of improvement, I am never free from the “dust” of my sins for very long.
When I was younger, I was often very anxious about my failings. Maturity – or at least the passing of more years – has made me more like Pig Pen. Like him I have come to be more comfortable with the knowledge that there is always a little cloud of dust that surrounds me. I can, and do, change out the old dust for new, but I am never completely free of it. I now acknowledge that there won’t be any long-range or lasting improvement if I become too frantic about my dust. I recognize that my own efforts will never make me spotless. And that’s all right. I do what I can as I can to clear out the dust, especially during Lent, and trust to God’s mercy to finish cleaning what I cannot.
And on Ash Wednesday God invites me to acquire some of the good dust. So, call an assembly and gather the people – the invitation is for everyone.
Katherine D. Frick, Obl.sb
St. Benedict Monastery