Memento homo, quiapulvis es,
Et in pulverem reverteris.
Remember, man, that dust thou art,
And into dust thou shalt return.
The ceremony of sprinkling ashes on the heads of the faithful this day, is instructive and significant. We are now entering upon Lent, a time particularly dedicated to fasting, prayer, mortification and self-denial. By these penitential exercises, we must endeavor to seek a reconciliation with God by the means which are most likely to obtain his mercy. By receiving ashes upon our heads, we appear before him in the posture of penitents, and, provided we accompany this outward ceremony with an internal sorrow and contrition for our sins, a true repentance, and firm purpose of amendment, we comply with the views of the church, and shall reap the advantages of mercy and pardon: but without such interior dispositions, we shall find little benefit; for, though we may join with others in the ceremony of the day, we only deserve the same reproach God made to the Jews by his prophet, Isaias 29. This people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Therefore, without the interior sentiments of sorrow for past sins, and resolutions of amendment, which God and his church require, the holiest and best institutions can be of little advantage to those who refuse them or neglect to observe them as they ought.
The words pronounced by the priest when he puts the ashes on our heads, Remember, man, etc. are a seasonable memento of our mortality, an excellent and useful admonition, designed to put us in mind that we drew our origin from dust, and that, though we may here indulge a haughty pride and love of ourselves, or admire our own beauty, strength and talents, still, alas! we are no more than dust, and into dust we must return.
The haughty monarch at whose despotic frown thousands tremble, on whose will the lives and fortunes of so many depend, and whose very name spreads terror into distant realms, what is he but dust: from dust he came, and like the meanest of his slaves, to dust he shall return, and bury all his glory and power in the grave. The rich and opulent, whose affluent fortunes cause them to be so much courted and admired by the world, who know not the want of anything they desire, and seem to enjoy every happiness, may, from the significant ceremony of this day, learn to place no confidence in their riches; for dust they are, and into dust they shall shortly return. That beauteous female, in whose countenance and charming mien all the graces seem to dwell, and who is the object of so much admiration, what is she, alas! but a painted piece of clay, formed out of the dust of the earth, into which she must again return. O salutary thought! how effectually dost thou pull down our pride, and remove the high opinion we entertain of ourselves! The rich and mighty are on a level with the poor and indigent, and with them must share the same fate. Death is not a respecter of persons. It seizes on all alike, the old and young, rich and poor, high and low, are all equally subject to it. And as all men are formed from dust, so shall they return to dust again.
This lesson the church reads to us this day; and the inference we ought to draw from it, is, to be careful to prepare ourselves for death. This, though it ought to be our greatest concern at all times, is an exercise peculiarly suitable to the season of Lent; for which reason, the church begins this solemn fast with this significant ceremony, that by reminding us of our mortality, we may seriously apply ourselves to the grand affair of our salvation; that when death comes, we may be found ready and prepared; and that when the body returns to dust, the soul may ascend to heaven, and there be received into the society of the blessed.
Eternal Author of all things, sovereign Lord of life and death, imprint on my mind the remembrance of my origin and of my last end. Let me frequently reflect that I must die. This is the sentence you have pronounced upon all men, nor do I wish or seek for an exemption. I submit to your decrees, wise Disposer of all things, and am truly content that my life and death are at your disposal. In your hands are the moments of my life. You have told me that I must die, but have mercifully concealed from me the time and the manner of my death, to preserve me from a false and presumptuous security, and that I might be, at all times, ready to obey your call. I bow humbly down and adore the decrees of your merciful providence, and submit to your will in all things. One petition I earnestly make – take me not with my sins unpardoned, before I have reconciled myself to you. Prepare me, Lord, for yourself; in your own due time, take me to yourself. May I prepare myself by works of penance in this holy season so as to find mercy at your hands.
May I now begin to live for you, daily dying to myself and the world. I must one day die and be eternally separated from all things here. How little reason then have I to be fond of what I cannot long enjoy, and of which I know not how soon I may be deprived. Must we die? Yes. How necessary, then, is it, that we should prepare for death. I acknowledge this necessity, and beg the aid of your grace to assist me in my preparation.
Withdraw my heart and affections, dear Lord, from this vain world, and fix them on you alone. May I never forget my last end, but prepare myself for it by the constant exercises of a holy life. Then shall my happy soul hereafter sing, with joy and triumph, ‘O, death, where is thy sting? O, grave, where is thy victory?’ Since, by dying, I gain heaven and a happy eternity. Then shall I forever sing a hymn of praise and thanksgiving to you, bounteous Author of eternal happiness, and bless your name through all eternity.
Gospel: Matthew 6:16-21
“When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to others to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.”
In this gospel Christ gives us excellent instructions relative to fasting, (for, whatever in formation he gave his disciples belongs to all Christians) and hence the church reads them to her children, as useful admonitions at the beginning of Lent, that teaching them in what manner they are to observe this apostolical fast, they may so discharge its duties, as not to deprive themselves of the benefit of so holy an institution.
Our blessed Lord, in the first place, gives us a necessary precaution against all pharisaical and hypocritical affectation in fasting, or a desire of being taken notice of, and commended for it by others. This was the crime for which the Pharisees were condemned by our Saviour; they placed all the merit of their fasting in the public practises of it. Therefore Christ warns us not to make any alteration in our dress or conduct that may seem to proceed from affectation or vanity, that dangerous worm which will devour all the fruit of our good works, and make them of no avail.
Having thus cautioned us against pride and hypocrisy in our fasts, Christ instructs us how we should fast, so as to merit a reward from our heavenly Father. We are now called to the annual observation of Lent, that by a forty days fast we may expiate the sins and excesses of which we have been guilty; that by doing penance we may reconcile ourselves to God, whom we have offended, and for this purpose we should be careful to observe it according to the spirit of the church, and with the dispositions of sincere penitents. This is what the Apostle calls, “The acceptable time, the day of salvation.” The ministers of God, like so many Baptists, now exhort us to fly from the wrath to come, and bring forth worthy fruits of penance. It is by true and sincere repentance, that we must render our fasting acceptable to God: for if we pay no other regard to this holy season, than by making a change in our diet, we shall be far from keeping it in the manner God requires. The fast which God has chosen is to loose the bands of iniquity, to convert ourselves to him with our whole hearts, in “fasting, weeping, and mourning, to rend our hearts and not our garments, by true contrition and sorrow for our sins.” God has promised mercy and pardon to those who in obedience to the voice of the church, relinquish their sinful habits, apply themselves to the exercises of mortification, self-denial, retirement, and recollection; to frequent prayer, spiritual reading, alms-deeds, and works of charity, without having any other object in view than our own spiritual advantage. How infatuated then must not those Christians be, who neglecting to turn so salutary an institution to their benefit, proceed in their usual careless way; who, whilst they comply with the injunction of the church, in outward fasting, imbibe nothing of her spirit, but instead of doing penance for their sins, rather add to their number, by the abuse of the remedies and mercies now offered!
It is not so with the pious Christian, the genuine child of the church. He begins this solemn fast with a due sense of the advantages to be reaped therefrom, he calls to mind the excesses and negligences of his past life, and condemns himself to the wholesome penance of self-denial; he endeavors, by diligence and favor to regain what he has lost. Convinced by experience of the weakness and corruption of his nature, and that his passions are likely to gain the ascendency over him, if not suppressed by a prudent restraint, he throws the bridle of mortification over them, and endeavors to check and subdue them: in a word, he enters thoroughly into the sense of the church, and observes this holy time according to her spirit: this should be the rule of conduct of all those who would keep Lent, and reap the spiritual benefits which may be derived therefrom.
Our blessed Saviour gives us another salutary admonition in this gospel, when he says, lay up to yourselves treasures in heaven: solid and permanent treasures, of which no outward force or violence, no secret fraud or any accident whatever can deprive us. Laying up treasures in heaven, is the practise of good works, which will follow us beyond the grave, and, like the seed sown upon good ground, produce a plentiful harvest: whereas all the trouble we take for this world, will prove of no advantage. Now the present is the season to lay up these heavenly treasures: when by fasting, prayer, and self-denial, by works of mercy and charity, we may not only cancel the obligations and debts we have contracted by our former sloth and negligence, but also increase our store, and procure to ourselves a fund in a bank that will never fail.
This is the lesson which the church reads to all her children in this day’s gospel: she lays before them, in the most pressing terms, the necessity of making the best use of this most acceptable time, and exhorts them, by her ministers, not to defer their sincere conversion, but turn to the Lord our God, and to seek him whilst he is to be found: to seek him in a sincere and humble manner is the only certain way to find him; and for our further encouragement, he has promised to hear us when we call upon him, and that we shall find him when we thus seek him.
O, my God, I humble myself in your presence, and with a deep sense of my past ingratitude, and frequent abuse of your mercies, I now desire to seek you, in prayer and fasting, that I may obtain pardon of those sins which have separated me from you: perfect what you have begun in me, assist me by your grace to find you, and having found you, dear Lord, by a sincere repentance, let me never lose you again, by relapsing into my former crimes. I come to you as the only physician of souls; from you alone I seek a remedy for all the evils, with which I am afflicted. I come to thee, who are the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Grant that I may never more wander from the way which leads to you. I believe in you, who are the unerring Truth, and hope, through a lively faith, and prompt obedience to your holy law, to obtain eternal life. You have graciously promised to hear those who call upon thee; hear then my prayers and mercifully grant what I ask to the glory of your holy name and the eternal benefit of my soul.
How often have you heard me, how often granted my request and healed my sick and sinful soul? What ungrateful returns have I made to your goodness. My God, I am covered with shame and confusion at the sight of my ingratitude. Yet, O Lord, continue your mercy to me; grant me now true sorrow and contrition for my sins, and grace never to offend you more.
Ah, my God, it is the love you have for me that makes you thus lenient towards me; and shall I not love you in return? Divine Love, come and inflame my heart and soul that I may burn with the love of so gracious and loving a God. May I constantly and forever love you, true and only life and happiness of my soul. I will love you, and you alone, for you alone are the only object worthy of love; for the love of you I will die to the world, and crucify my flesh with all its concupiscences; for the love of you I will deny and mortify myself. I will fast, watch, pray, and do penance here, that you may spare me hereafter. Amen.
- Father Pacificus Baker. “Ash Wednesday”. . CatholicSaints.Info. 1 February 2016. Web. 30 March 2017. <>