Today is Ash Wednesday, a day that takes its name from the ashes imposed on Catholics’ foreheads to mark the beginning of Lent. Why ashes? Because, as the traditional formula of imposition puts it, “Remember man that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”
When will we return to dust? When we die. So, during the next seven Wednesdays of Lent, let’s reflect on the fact and meaning of death.
It is, after all, what we are supposed to remember today. The fact is, however, that memento mori — remembering death — is ever more put out of contemporary peoples’ minds.
That’s paradoxical because, as St. John Paul II noted in his encyclical letter Evangelium vitae, we live in an era marked by a profound conflict between a “culture of life” and a “culture of death.” Death stalks us. We are emerging from a pandemic that claimed many lives. As I write these reflections, we are in the first day of a modern war on the European continent in which people are already dying from Russian aggression.
But it’s not just that we are beset by death. In many ways, our world even welcomes death. It calls it a “solution” to human problems, before birth and approaching death. Don’t want that baby? Abortion is the answer. Some even pretend it is a “right.” Don’t want to live any longer? Get yourself a suicide kit. That’s also a “right” in some places. Frustrated with life? Consider the jump in suicide rates, shockingly among the young. Consider, too, the paradox: when does self-killing cross from being a “bad” suicide to a good “exercise of autonomy” that no one dare interfere with?
As the King of Siam might have put it, “It’s a puzzlement.”
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