Every year my birthday (2/24) falls somewhere near the beginning of Lent. I call it a good year when it falls before Ash Wednesday, and this year is a particularly good year, since it coincides with Mardi Gras!!
Then again, I'll have only one day to celebrate a journey around the sun before we're called to contemplate mortality, and this year the vulnerability of aging is striking especially hard. . .too many of my peers are dealing with chronic or life-threatening illness.
I love the fact that Ash Wednesday deals in a physical sign of this vulnerability though, because ashes are a prime reason many of us do not contemplate our bodies' temporality much these days. As cremation becomes more and more the standard, our society seems to "slough off" the bodies of our beloved dead all too quickly. We will gather to 'celebrate life,' but not so much to be reminded that those eyes we knew so well are closed forever.
Thomas Lynch has written powerfully on this subject in several places, most recently in an essay in Best American Spiritual Writing 2008. He gives the vivid picture of a woman who comes to pick up her sister's ashes, because no one else will, and as he watches she goes out with the urn to the trunk of her car, thinks better of it, then places it in the back seat, then reconsiders again, and finally places the ashes in the passenger seat, and buckles the seat belt around them.
"Just a shell," people say of the body of the deceased, but our actions sometimes speak otherwise. We know that this dust formed of the ground has not only been breathed into by God, but molded, shaped, and blessed by divine hands. They will return to dust, but in the mean time they are marked with a holy sign of God's ultimate love.