Dad had always wished to be buried in his ancestral grave. His great-grandparents and his parents are buried there. When he passed away in January 2019, he was buried in the parish cemetery for many reasons. The graves at the parish cemetery are not ancestral graves. Every three years, the remains of those who are buried there are transferred to a common well, and another person is buried in the grave that was just emptied.
Knowing that the third anniversary of my dad’s passing would be on my next visit home in January 2022, I approached the parish priest to make the arrangements to transfer Dad’s remains to the ancestral grave. The parish priest was very obliging, but he was also concerned that my dad’s remains could be exhumed earlier than January 2022 if his grave was needed for another burial. He suggested that we transfer Dad’s remains while I was still home this time. This made my family nervous for three reasons. First, in India bodies are not embalmed and it had been only two years since his burial. Second, how did we want to remember Dad? Our last image of him was his peaceful demeanor in the coffin. Did we now want to see his decomposed body? Third, emotionally, this would be like reliving Dad’s funeral all over again.
Nevertheless, after thinking everything through, we decided to go ahead—my mom, my dad’s brother, his wife, and me. Because of the pandemic we did not invite anyone else.
The moment arrived. The grave diggers opened the coffin. Initially we were hesitant to peek in and leave it to the grave diggers to their part. But then, we did. As the parish priest said the prayers for the dead, the grave diggers gently, respectfully, and solemnly transferred his remains from one coffin to the other. There are many thoughts and emotions that welled up within all of us.
Beside all the emotions, I also had a self-realization as I stood by Dad’s graveside. I said to myself, “For you are dust and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19). That was my dad’s body being transferred into the coffin, but “you are dust and to dust you shall return!” Never have I been reminded of my mortality more intensely as I was on that day.
Today we begin the holy season of Lent. As we receive ashes, we are reminded one more time, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Folks, it is true. I saw it with my own father. We are dust and to dust we will return.
As we remember that we are dust, we must also remember that in the Christian context, “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” is not a statement of condemnation, but rather, an invitation. It is an invitation to embrace God’s redeeming love. Lent begins with these words from the prophet Joel:
Even now, says the LORD,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the LORD, your God.
For gracious and merciful is he,
slow to anger, rich in kindness,
and relenting in punishment.
(Joel 2: 12-13)
As Christians we “return to the Lord with our whole heart” (Joel 2:12) because God came to redeem with God’s whole heart. That is our motivation for returning to the Lord with all our heart. We do not return to the Lord because of fear. We return to the Lord because it is our response to a God who loves us and redeems.
How do we “return to the Lord with our whole heart?” Jesus proposes three ways (Mt 6:1-6, 16-18) in which we can return with our “whole heart,” fasting, prayer, and almsgiving.
Fasting is not for fasting’s sake. Rather, our fasting expresses our total dependence on God. When hunger pangs hit us, our fasting reminds us that just as our body longs for food, our souls long for God. Fasting reminds us that body and soul, we belong to God.
Jesus’ understanding of prayer is simple. Prayer is not for the sake of temporal rewards but rather because prayer is finding life and the meaning of our life in our relationship with God who is our father, our mother, our creator and our friend.
We give alms because returning to the Lord with our “whole heart” is not an act of selfishness. It is not so that we might feel good about ourselves. Rather, it is an invitation to take care of love another as God loves us. It is an invitation to become like God who selflessly sent Jesus to redeem us. When we were in need God gave us God’s hand. Almsgiving is an invitation to love as Christ loved, to become aware that whatever we do to the least of our brothers and sister we do it to Him.
It is true! We are dust and to dust we will return. But our soul is eternal and is meant for eternity. God loves us beyond measure and invites us into God’s eternal life. All we have to do is return to the Lord with our “whole heart!” Every Lent is another opportunity to do that.
Update [ML]: Father Satish delivers his homily on Ash Wednesday.