Like millions of Catholics around the world, Pope Benedict XVI received ashes on Ash Wednesday. He said that they become a “sacred symbol” of austerity which reflects both the “curse” of sin and the promise of the resurrection in a fallen world.
The Ash Wednesday words from Scripture — “dust you are and unto dust you shall return” – are “an invitation to penance, humility and an awareness of our mortal state,” the Pope said. “We are not to despair, but to welcome in this mortal state of ours the unthinkable nearness of God who opens the way to Resurrection, to paradise regained, beyond death … The same spirit that resurrected Jesus from the dead can transform our hearts from hearts of stone to hearts of flesh,” he said in his homily at the fifth-century Basilica of Santa Sabina, where he too received ashes.
Lent is thus a journey towards the “Easter of Resurrection.” The Pope spoke after leading the Ash Wednesday evening procession on Rome’s Aventine Hill, a tradition revived by Pope John Paul II in 1979.
The papal homily included a short reflection on the meaning of ashes in Scripture and in Christian thought.
While the ashes are not a sacramental sign, they are linked with “prayer and the sanctification of the Christian people,” he said.
In Genesis, God created man out of dust from the soil and breathed a “breath of life” into him. The Ash Wednesday ashes therefore recall the creation of mankind.
Being human means uniting matter with the “Divine breath.” However, the symbol of dust takes on a negative connotation because of sin.
“Before the fall the soil is totally good,” the Pope said. But after the fall dust produces “only thorns and brambles.” Rather than recalling the “creative hand of God” that is open to life, dust becomes “a sign of death.”
Pope Benedict said that this change shows that the Earth itself participates in man’s destiny. The cursing of the soil helps man recognize his limitations and his own human nature.
This curse comes from sin, not from God, he explained. Even within this punishment, there is “a good intention that comes from God.”
When God says in Genesis “dust you are and unto dust you shall return,” he intends not only a just punishment, but also an announcement of the path to salvation, the Pope preached.
This salvation “will pass through the Earth, through that same dust, that same flesh which will be assumed by the Word Incarnate.”