Rameses II
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“In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  (Genesis 3:19)

      “Remember, Man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”  I remember how deeply that solemn admonition impressed me when, as a young child, I first consciously participated in the observance of Ash Wednesday.  So much of the meaning of the Scriptures and the Liturgy was beyond the reach of my young and unsubtle mind, but I understood this: I would die someday, and everything else I could see and touch would pass away as well.

     That’s one of the essential premises of the Christian Faith: the impermanence of our lives in this world, and along with that, the ultimate futility of that world itself.  That’s not a uniquely Christian insight, of course.  The 19th century poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, for example, in his sonnet “Ozymandias,” writes of the ruined statue of an ancient king, its fragments half-buried in the sand.  On the pedestal passers-by can still read the final, ironic, boast of the long-dead ruler:

 

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

 

Cinerarium
Alabaster Roman Cinerarium (funerary urn) for holding ashes of the dead

One of the ironies here is that, as an unbeliever, Shelley himself could hope for immortality only through the survival of his body of work, from which this poem is by far the most well remembered today, two centuries after his death.*

     The image of dust and ashes goes back much further than the early 19th century, of course.  Decades before the birth of Christ, the pagan Roman poet Catullus wrote a poem in remembrance of his dead brother.  The poem begins:

 

Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus
     advenio has miseras, frater, ad inferias,
ut te postremo donarem munere mortis
     et mutam nequiquam alloquerer cinerem . . . .

 

Traveling through many nations and across many seas

           I have come, Brother, for these offerings, so that I might

endow you, at last, with this gift for the dead,

           and address (in vain) your mute ashes . . .

 

We might even say that the recognition of the transitory and unsubstantial reality of this world is a universal: there are entire religions (Hinduism, Buddhism) in which the highest goal (at least as some adherents tell it) is complete escape from the material world.

     Christianity is not one of those religions.  Ash Wednesday is not the end of the story. We don’t see the world as illusory or evil: after all, when He created this world, God said that it was good (Genesis 1:31). But it is, after all, just another created thing, subject to corruption and eventual annihilation. God created it as a place for us to build our relationship with Him. The problem arises when we direct toward the creation the devotion due only to the Creator.  That’s why we need to detach from the world, and yet at the same time search for God in and through the world.

Saint Agnes of Bohemia Gives the Grandmaster a Model of the Church from the Altarpiece of Niklaus Puchner (1482)

      As it happens, we see a good real-life example of the Christian understanding of how it all works in the life of St. Agnes of Bohemia, whose feast is usually observed on this date, March 2nd (this year St. Agnes’ feast is superseded by the observance of Ash Wednesday).  I invite you to read my full post on St. Agnes HERE.  Briefly, She was a daughter of the King of Bohemia, a niece of the King of Hungary, betrothed to another king for a time, and was eventually sought out as a bride by the Holy Roman Emperor himself.  She rejected it all.

     Agnes rejected it all, but again not because the material world is evil.  She didn’t seek to escape into the nothingness of nirvana, or starve herself to death like an Albigensian parfait.  She chose a greater King as her husband, Jesus Christ, and showed her devotion to her husband by working to build his kingdom on Earth:

 

Agnes spent the rest of her life using her worldly position to further the Kingdom of Heaven.  She founded hospitals and convents; she helped settle the recently founded Franciscans and Poor Clares in her kingdom (and established a deep long-distance friendship with St. Clare herself); she established a male military order, the Knights of the Cross with the Red Star, whose primary mission was nursing; she joined the Poor Clares herself, and eventually became abbess.  

 

     St. Agnes didn’t consider life in this world as ensnarement in vile matter: rather, it was the ground on which she cultivated her relationship with her Lord and God.

     This is the same Lord who “became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). He sanctified human flesh, but at the same time called us to a destiny beyond the dust from which our bodies are composed.

     “Remember, Man, that you are dust.”  The words of the Ash Wednesday liturgy are not simply telling us that we come from mere matter: they are reminding us that God has so much more in store for us.  It’s a call to lift our eyes from the dust, and look to Heaven.

 

*He might be even better known as the husband of Mary Shelley, author of the novel Frankenstein.

 

 Full texts of Shelley’s “Ozymandias” and Catullus’s “Multas Per Gentes”:

Ozymandias

I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

___

Catullus’s “Multas Per Gentes” (poem 101)

Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus
     advenio has miseras, frater, ad inferias,
ut te postremo donarem munere mortis
     et mutam nequiquam alloquerer cinerem,
quandoquidem fortuna mihi tete abstulit ipsum.
     heu miser indigne frater adempte mihi,
nunc tamen interea haec, prisco quae more parentum
     tradita sunt tristi munere ad inferias,
accipe fraterno multum manantia fletu,
     atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.

 

Traveling through many nations and across many seas

     I have come, Brother, for these offerings, so that I might

endow you, at last, with this gift for the dead,

     and address (in vain) your mute ashes,

inasmuch as Fortune has stolen you, yourself, away from me.

    Alas, poor brother, unfairly taken from me,

Now nevertheless receive these things, which, in the ancient custom of

    our parents have been handed on through sad obligation as a

death offering, along with abundant brotherly weeping,

    and for eternity, brother, good bye and farewell.

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