Ashes to ashes

By Moira Billinge

The parish priest knew that some of his parishioners had been living the ‘high life’ and Mass attendance and the weekly collections had gone down. While he knew he would be burning the midnight oil to prepare a suitable homily for the weekend, he believed he had a responsibility to address the issue.

He decided to talk to his parish about the sensitive subject of death and dying. Though he did not want to frighten them unduly, he did want to impress upon them that as human beings we will not live forever and so ‘... you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect Him’ (Matthew 24:44).

The important day dawned and he asked if, on this occasion, all the children could go into Little Church; his message was, after all, designed specifically for the more adult members of the congregation.

Unused to seeing this sterner side of their priest, the parishioners sat nervously as they waited for him to start. Once the coast was clear, he braced himself, took a big, deep breath, and launched into the homily.

‘Everyone in this parish will one day die,’ he began. He paused, for greater effect, and looked around to see their reactions. To his astonishment, a man at the back of the church started laughing – loudly. Thinking that he must have misheard, the priest decided to repeat his statement, but more slowly, just in case there was a problem with the loudspeakers.

‘Everyone in this parish will – one day – die!’ he declared, but the man laughed even louder as parishioners turned round to look at him.

The priest was, by now, feeling his blood pressure rise. He had put a lot of hard work into his sermon yet had not even progressed past the first sentence. He decided to give it another go.

‘Everyone in this parish will one day die!’ he proclaimed, carefully pronouncing each word. The man at the back was, by this time, clutching at his sides and rolling in the aisle with laughter. Some members of the congregation were so unnerved they began to move to other benches.

The priest approached the man. ‘Sir!’ he said. ‘This is a serious subject, why do you find it so funny?’

‘Because,’ gasped the man, ‘I’m not from this parish!’

The above was told to me by a priest who visited my family when I was a teenager and it made a lasting impression on me, not only for of its humour but also the stark reality that none of us will escape death, no matter how hard we try to postpone it – not even the man at the back of the church in the story.

If we owe it to ourselves, and to God, to keep as well as we can, no amount of exercise, healthy eating, or everything-in-moderation lifestyles will enable us to evade that final call.

On Ash Wednesday, when ashes were applied to our foreheads and the words ‘Remember, you are dust and into dust you shall return’ were uttered, the Church was reminding us that, as wonderful as the human body is, we are so much more than just flesh and blood. The ashes, which symbolise our mortality and our need for continued repentance and loving service, reinforce that we are created by God and for God. Our mortal lives are the stepping stones to our redemption which will be complete only when we are raised from the dead, in resurrected bodies that will be like His own.

‘We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song.’
Pope St John Paul II