Ash Wednesday Jl 2:12-18; Ps 51; 2 Cor 5:20—6:2; Mt 6:1-6, 16-18

‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These powerful words that are heard in the liturgy on Ash Wednesday echo over the years and remind us vividly of our mortality. Large numbers arrive in churches to receive the ashes and many people who live on the peripheries of the Church find their way back, at least momentarily, on this day.

While these words seem very bleak, we hear them because they contain the promise of the gracious mercy of God that is freely offered. Although the path from baptism to death is often full of many twists and turns, the ashes signal that we may be saved and recover the hope that “Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you,” as Pope Francis put it in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.

The ashes point to the promise of Easter by the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross and Jesus’s words to the good thief: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).

While talking about death is often taboo and thought to be morbid, many people do want to talk about dying and find comfort in attending a “Death Café”, where people gather to eat, drink and discuss mortality.

As a Church, we have the resources to lead this conversation. In medieval times, the tradition of Ars moriendi – the art of dying well – helped people to prepare for death with prayer, the Mass, the Last Rites and the means to fight the demons and the temptations of despair, unbelief and denial of God. Graphic illustrations show the angels and the devils competing for souls.

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