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Ash Wednesday

Last fall I found this deer skull on one of my walks through the woods. Part of it was sticking out from under the leaves and as I uncovered it, I saw that the short antlers were still intact. What was surprising was where I found it. It was in our housing development’s woods along Lake Wylie near the children’s playground. Why was it there? Where was the rest of it? How did it get there? What killed it?

While these questions remain unanswered, the skull reminds me of Ash Wednesday. Why Ash Wednesday? Because as we receive ashes on our foreheads that day, we hear, “From dust you have come and to dust you shall return.” As stark as the skull appears and as hard as it may be to look at it, it is reality for all of us. It will happen to you and to me. And in the future, even the skull will disappear. Strangely enough, the skull with the small, attached antlers can also remind us of the caricatures of the devil that we have seen with his red body and spiked horns. This image of the devil haunting us is another allusion to Ash Wednesday and the devil’s desire to keep us from getting closer to God.

Death is all around us. The fall leaves changing color is death to the leaves. The first hard freeze in late fall is death to the beautiful late-blooming azalea flowers along our walking path. The deer lying dead on the side of the road that was struck by a car the previous night is a more obvious sign of death for us. We cannot escape it, yet we do not want to think about it let alone look at it.

St. Benedict in his Rule in the fourth chapter entitled “The Tools for Good Works” says, “Live in the fear of judgment day and have a great horror of hell. Yearn for everlasting life with holy desire. Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die.” These can be morbid thoughts. But they do serve their purpose well. First, meditating on these statements keeps us from focusing on ourselves and can redirect our attention heavenward. Second, they keep us from being too attached to this world. One of my favorite ways of prefacing the good news of the gospel is with these thoughts: none of us is getting out of here alive; we are not taking anything with us; and we must get it right the first time since there are no mulligans. Finally, they are the daily reminder that we are pilgrims in this world and are only passing through.

Ash Wednesday comes only once each year. But we should live with the message of Ash Wednesday every day of our lives: “From dust you have come and to dust you shall return.” It is a fact of life.

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