Every Ash Wednesday we hear the following words while a priest places ashes on our foreheads in the form of a cross: “Remember, man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” It was in the book of Genesis that we were told that man was created from the dust of the Earth and will ultimately return to dust. (Genesis 3:19)
As a result of original sin, our flesh, organs, and bones will begin to decompose after our death and eventually turn into dust. There are only two individuals who have escaped this fate: Jesus Christ and His mother, Mary. Rather than being left on Earth to decompose, after their deaths Christ ascended body and soul into heaven and Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven.
It was John the Evangelist, the only apostle who did not suffer a martyr’s death, who said, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:1,14)
We know from our faith that there are three divine persons in the Blessed Trinity – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Although the Son of God is one person, He possesses two natures – one human and one divine. Prior to the incarnation, Jesus was a divine person with a divine nature. When He was conceived in the womb of Mary, He “became flesh” and took on an additional (human) nature.
The foundation of our Catholic faith is our belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ. In order to be true Christians, we must first believe that Christ was divine – that He is the second person of the Blessed Trinity. Is it difficult for some to believe in His divinity? Yes; even Thomas, one of His own apostles, doubted His divinity after being told that Christ had appeared to the other apostles after His death on the cross.
If we truly believe in the divinity of Christ, we must seek to imitate Him in everything we do. He gave us very specific instructions on what we need to do to imitate Him: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” ( Matthew 16:24)
In addition to being a symbol of mortality, mourning, and penance, ashes are a reminder that we are all called to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Him. Ultimately, if we follow His example, it won’t matter if our bodies return to dust, because at the end of time we will experience our own individual resurrection when our glorified bodies are reunited with our souls in heaven.