Huge crowds turn out for Ash Wednesday, even though the church does not classify it as a holy day of obligation. They want the ashes.
Evidently, many people think of the ashes as conferring a blessing, that they possess a nearly magical power, capable of warding off evil. However, I would instead maintain that the ashes issue a warning and an admonishment.
Consider the words said when applying the ashes. There are two possibilities: 1. “Repent and believe in the Gospel,” or 2. “Remember, you are dust and unto dust you shall return.”
The first formula instructs us to turn away from sin. (Repent.) The second formula is a reminder of our mortality. It instructs us to remember. There you have it, warning and admonishment.
The words we heard on Ash Wednesday echo the message we hear in Sunday’s Gospel reading, Lk 13:1-9. Jesus points to a couple of unexpected tragedies to remind the crowd that life is short — that any of them could die at any moment. Along with this warning, Jesus also issues an admonishment: that they should repent.
When facing the possibility of death, we can choose from among several options on how to react. For example, one proverb advises us: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Similarly, in a more poetic vein, we are instructed: “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” A modern trend suggests that we compose a bucket list of those items we wish to accomplish before we die.
In any case, Jesus encourages us to look at our relationship with God and make it right, while we still have time. This message continues the basic theme of Jesus’ ministry: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mk 1:15).
Notice here, Jesus does not cite the possibility of death but, rather, the nearness of God’s kingdom, as motivation for the listener to repent.
Ordinarily, when Jesus told a parable to the crowds, he would begin it with the words: “The kingdom of God is like. . . .” Pointing out the nearness of the kingdom of God made up a major part of Jesus’ basic message. That would supply the primary motivation for people to repent.
Then why does Jesus mention the two tragedies — the Galileans killed by Pilate and the people killed by the collapsing tower — in exhorting the people in the Gospel reading to repent?
He is not resorting to scare tactics in delivering his message of repentance. Rather, he is drawing upon people’s recent experience. They would have heard about these events.
While the memory of these tragedies is still fresh in people’s minds, Jesus wishes to meet the people where they are. “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”