I celebrated my first Ash Wednesday as a priest at Carlo Forlanini Hospital in Rome. As I was going to the patients’ rooms to distribute ashes, a nurse carrying a tray of medicine approached me, “Father, could you give me ashes?” I said, “Yes, of course.” And I proceeded with the formula, “Remember you are dust, and unto dust you will return” and I put ashes on her forehead, which she seemed to receive very devoutly.
When I was finished, she said, “Sì, padre, è vero. La vita è una fregatura. Si muore e tutto è finito.” “Yes, father, it’s true. Life is a rip-off. You die and it’s all over.” I quietly laughed to myself and thought, “She just doesn’t get it. She somehow missed the boat on eternal life.”
Over the years, actually, every Ash Wednesday and beginning of Lent I think of that nurse who didn’t get it. In a strange way, she has become a reminder to me to ask myself a question, “Do I really get it? Do I really remember and know what is happening in this holy season?” She’s a reminder to me not to give myself a pass on those questions.
It’s about death—unto dust you shall return. It’s about sin—repent and believe. We must know our mortality and our sinfulness but not to stay stuck there. When we really know our sin and our death, then we can know and embrace Jesus Christ who is our forgiveness and our life. When we know ourselves as broken and fragile, we can also know ourselves as transformed by the one who “stretched out his hands as he endured his Passion, so as to break the bonds of death and manifest the resurrection.”