“Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust, thou shalt return.” I’m old enough to remember the priest murmuring that as he smeared ashes on my forehead, conveniently bared of my perpetual bangs by my Catholic school beanie. The words seared. I remembered them all year and waited for them the following year. Then suddenly, they disappeared, to be replaced by mundane references to the Gospel and mild exhortations to turn away from sin.
In the decades since, as I felt the ash applied, most often by some woman reciting one of the flat formulas, usually with a welcoming smile, I would sigh involuntarily. Am I the only one who remembers? Am I the only one who craves the memento mori? Surely not. But year after year, the same.
I’m older now, in my sixth decade. I have become more assertive. This past February, I managed to get into the line of an old priest. Before I reached him, I heard him muttering something about the Gospel. When I got up to him, not without trepidation (who knows what an old “Vatican II” priest might be capable of when dealing with the “pre-conciliar”?), I said, “Father, may I have ‘Remember Man’?” Mirabile dictu, he didn’t throw me out of the church, or even roll his eyes. He even smiled ever so slightly. I didn’t get “man,” and I didn’t get “thou,” but I did get “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you will return.”
And now, in the middle of a global panic, of a lingering shutdown of everyone and everything, so that no one anywhere might die, I’m glad I asked for those words. I want to be prudent. I want to keep the vulnerable safe. I have loved ones who are vulnerable. But I had not been to a Mass in person for over two months. I did not receive the Eucharist for the same period. And I don’t know yet when I can expect to assist at Mass. I’m hungry. I’m hungry for Jesus and the grace He gives. That hunger makes me wonder.
If all of us, especially our priests and bishops, had heard “Remember Man” year after year for the past half-century, would the Mass have been so quickly squirreled away as non-essential? Or would we all have remembered that this life is only temporary and that some things are worth risking death?
Probably not. “Remember Man” was just one tiny piece of a largely dismantled liturgy. But piece by piece, or “brick by brick,” as Father Z likes to say, the view of the world that said we are exiled citizens of a heavenly city, and we shouldn’t be too comfortable here, was removed from our collective consciousness. “Remember Man” was collateral damage from the demolition.
What if we brought it back? What if each of us individually asked for “Remember Man” next Ash Wednesday? What if, little by little, “brick by brick,” we rebuilt, at least, the memento mori?
Let’s try it. After all, what do we have to lose? Next Ash Wednesday, demand “Remember Man.” Let’s see what happens.
Grace Holder is a wife, a mom to five mostly grown children, and a public interest lawyer in Pennsylvania.