Ding. Ding. Ding.
I looked over at my purse. Somewhere in its murky depths, my cell phone was clanging with repeated notifications. I fished the device from my bag and stared at the screen in shock.
Our parish’s Twitter account, which I manage, was exploding. Something I’d posted had triggered over 5,000 views, 700 likes and 130 retweets. Several people had commented, none of whom I recognized.
And the tweet that had started it all?
A picture of our priests updating the parish sign with the words of Genesis 3:19: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
I was puzzled. I’d uploaded that tweet the night before Ash Wednesday, with a note about our Mass schedule for the next day. I’d posted a number of items since then, and it was now the first Sunday of Lent. Why had this tweet suddenly caught fire?
I scanned through the list of Twitter users who’d liked or retweeted the post. Some were local; many were not – one was from Hawaii, and I rather doubted we’d see him any time soon at one of our Masses here in Northeast Philly. A number appeared to be Christian, with Bible verses listed in their user profiles.
But most seemed to be quite ordinary people, not particularly religious, let alone Catholic. We’d even received a like from a user who called herself the “Zombie Killin’ Queen.”
I started to panic. Was this cyber support sincere or sarcastic? Had I managed to turn our parish’s priests into an online joke?
Breathing a nervous prayer, I tapped my way through the comments. And as I reviewed them, I realized what had sparked the activity: the Scripture listed on the parish sign.
“Gotta love Catholics,” drawled one woman. “We’ll always remind you how insignificant you really are.”
I groaned. I’d had to persuade our pastor about the value of a Twitter account. Comments like this one would certainly make him rethink my case.
“Nailed it,” another user remarked. “But we’re so jaded. Who really believes this anymore?”
Well, a bit more hopeful, I thought. At least this guy affirmed the Scripture; he just wondered if modern society could do the same.
Then I saw a third comment that stopped me in mid-scroll on my phone screen.
“I have always found this oddly comforting,” confessed a woman named Nora.
And she’s right.
“Today we need to hear the ‘you are dust and to dust you will return’ of Ash Wednesday,” St. John Paul II declared, “so that the definitive truth of the Gospel, the truth about the resurrection, will unfold before us: believe in the Gospel.”
That truth is written in the dust, as Father Bernard Ukwuegbu observes.
“The ash is the mud, the material from which God fashioned humanity in his own image and likeness; and out of which he re-created humanity anew in the image and likeness of his Son from death to new life,” Father Ukwuegbu writes.
This ancient symbol of penitence helps us to admit our limitations and to surrender to God’s merciful love.
“The ash on our forehead encourages us to drop all the daily masks that we carry about and to come to God just as we are,” Father Ukwuegbu.
When we do just that, the Lord can redeem and heal us, as a close friend reminded me.
After I’d asked for his take on our tweet’s popularity, he replied without hesitation, “It’s the bluntness of the Scripture. We need to hear it.”
And he should know. Addiction had ravaged him until, broken, he relinquished the ashes of his life to the Lord. Transformed by Christ’s love, he now leads support groups and actively ministers to the homeless and the addicted.
This Lent, may the ashes we have received give us strange comfort; in a world of fake news, may this honest dust renew our hope.