To Dust You Shall Return: Lenten Solidarity with the Sick and Dying

February 10, 2016

This weekly series of posts is from Dominican Friars Health Care Ministry of New York, a ministry of the Province of St. Joseph centered at St. Catherine of Siena Priory in New York, NY. Untitled Reflections on Ethics, Faith, and Health Care To Dust You Shall Return: Lenten Solidarity with the Sick and Dying by Fr. Jonah Pollock, O.P., Associate Director, Dominican Friars Health Care Ministry of New York On Ash Wednesday, millions of people around the world freely submit to having their foreheads marked with ashes while they hear the words “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Every year, Catholics, other Christians, and even some non-Christians are eager to get their ashes, but not everyone who wants ashes imposed on their foreheads understands what this imposition of ashes is supposed to mean or what the words “to dust you shall return” are meant to convey. “You are dust and to dust you shall return” is a quotation from the Book of Genesis. It is taken from chapter 3, when God declares to Adam and Eve the consequences of their sin. As God warned in chapter 2, one result of eating the fruit of the forbidden tree was that Adam and Eve would surely die. They, and all their progeny, would return to the dust from which they came. For the human race, the children of Adam and Eve, death is a consequence of original sin. It was not part of God’s original intention (see Wisdom 1: 13). The death of human beings is a consequence of sin and is an evil that is contrary to God’s original purpose. It is part of what Jesus came to undo. Jesus is the redeemer of all mankind and, by his own death and resurrection, has liberated human beings from the tyranny of sin and its evil effects. St. Paul tells us that “Jesus must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet,” that “the last enemy to be destroyed is death,” and that “for just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life” (1 Cor. 15: 25, 26, 22). Jesus has come to destroy death, to raise up our earthly bodies of dust and transform them according to the pattern of his own glorified body. When we have ashes imposed upon our foreheads and hear the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” we are invited into this great mystery of death and resurrection in Christ. In the season of Lent, we are called to remember our own sin and our own death, so as to see in ourselves the need for Christ’s redemption. We remember that we are dust so that we will also remember that it is our own lowly condition that Jesus has embraced and redeemed in His death and raised up and glorified in His resurrection. We remember this, not just through a mental exercise, but also by our fasting and works of penance. The practices we adopt for our Lenten observance are meant to keep ever before us the reality of our sin and our death in order that we might hone our desire for their remedy. The Church has traditionally referred to such practices as “mortification,” a word that suggests the “putting to death” of the body in order to enter more fully into the paschal mystery of Christ. In health care centers throughout the world, many people are sick and some people, sadly, are dying. For those who have faith in Jesus, the mystery of his suffering, death, and resurrection is something they experience in very real and intense ways. They are confronted with their own bodily weakness and, for many, the possibility of their own death. This can be a most frightening and discomforting experience. It can also be a moment of profound grace. The sick and the dying often find themselves prompted to turn to God in ways that they never have before, longing to share in Christ’s victory over sin and death. They share now in the Cross of Jesus, trusting that, through His Cross, they will also share in Jesus’ resurrection. Our ashes invite us to solidarity with our brothers and sisters who suffer in our midst. As we begin the observance of Lent, we are told to recall our own weakness and our own mortality. How can we not take heed of the sickness and mortal danger experienced by our suffering neighbors? We are invited to enter into the passion and death of our Lord, a mystery being lived out all around us. We prepare, through fasting, prayer, and works of penance, for the participation in the paschal mystery of Christ that will culminate in our own death, when we offer ourselves finally to God in union with the self-offering of his Son. Many of our brothers and sisters are doing just that right now. Let us therefore begin our observance of this Lenten season in union with the sick and the dying in our midst. Let us see in them a reflection of our own weakness, our own mortality, and our own desperate need for the redemption held out for us in Christ. Let us offer our prayers, fasting, and works of penance not only for our own deeper participation in the dying and rising of Christ, but also for that of our suffering neighbors.

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