As we continue our journey of forty days, it’s good to remember that fasting from food is good, but what God REALLY wants from us is our gift of self—expressed in a love for the poor, the hungry, the homeless, and the downtrodden. 

The first reading at Mass today explains it all:

 Is this the manner of fasting I wish, of keeping a day of penance: That a man bow his head like a reed, and lie in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?

 This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; Setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke;

 Sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; Clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own.

 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be healed; Your vindication shall go before you, and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.

 Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer, you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am! If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech.

—Isaiah 58:5-9:



Remember, man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.

–Genesis 3:19

Yeah, right. 

You know, in your heart of hearts, that that means everyone else but you—don’t you?

 It’s the human condition.  We give lip service to our mortality, joking about it at the water cooler with a wry smile—but we live as though there were no tomorrow, and no end of tomorrows.  It seems that many of us don’t REALLY believe that one day we will be gone, and the earth will continue on its axis as though nothing had happened. 

 I was thinking of a story about Madame Pompadour, the French lady of the court who was mistress to King Louis XV.  Madame Pompadour was seriously ill and nearing death; but to her last moments, she lived as she had always lived—preening for her audience.  On her deathbed, she called out to God, “Wait a second!” as she dabbed her cheeks with rouge.

 On Ash Wednesday (observed this year on March 9) and throughout the Lenten season, the Church calls us to prayer and penitence, in preparation for the ultimate journey at the end of our lives.  The ashes which are imposed on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday are a tangible reminder of our mortality, of the dissolution of our mortal bodies after death.

 Ashes in Scripture and in Contemporary Culture – In the Bible, ashes are a symbol of mourning and penitence.  The prophet Job (Job 42:3-6) says to God, “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear; but now mine eye seeth thee.  The other eye wandered of its own accord.  Wherefor I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

The prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 6:26) called for repentance this way:  “O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes.”

And the prophet Daniel (Daniel 9:3) says, “I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes.” 

 Contemporary folk singer/prophet Michael Smith reflects on mortality in his classic “Dead Egyptian Blues.”  King Tut is dead, he says, but soon we’ll be just like him.  Pack your peanut butter sandwiches, wear your ashes proudly, and be ready.