The favorable moment and grace of Lent shows us the very spiritual meaning also through the old formula: "Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return," which the priest pronounces when he places ashes on our head. We are thus remitted to the beginning of human history, when the Lord said to Adam after the original fault: "By the sweat of your face shall you get bread to eat, Until you return to the ground, from which you were taken; For you are dirt, and to dirt you shall return" (Genesis 3:19).
Here, the Word of God reminds us of our frailty, including our death, which is the extreme expression of our frailty. In face of the innate fear of the end, and even more so in the context of a culture that in so many ways tends to censure the reality and the human experience of dying, the Lenten liturgy on one hand reminds us of death, inviting us to realism and to wisdom but, on the other hand, it drives us above all to accept and live the unexpected novelty that the Christian faith liberates us from the reality of death itself.
Man is dust and to dust he shall return, but he is precious dust in God's eyes, because God created man for immortality. Thus the liturgical formula "Remember man that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return" finds the fullness of its meaning in reference to the new Adam, Christ.
One thing, more of principle than of content, struck me about the General Audience address and the homily. It is their nature as Liturgical catechesis. This is particularly true of the General Audience address, where Pope Benedict gives a clear teaching about the marking with ashes and the accompanying texts that are particular to the Liturgy for Ash Wednesday; and in effect invites his listeners to live that teaching as they participate in the Liturgy on the same day. At one level it represents "useful teaching" about the living of the Christian life; but precisely as a Liturgical catechesis, it also enables us to enter more deeply and consciously into the celebration of the Liturgical sign and into its Biblical context. When we do this, the Liturgy comes to life for us and, if we are thinking in the context of the celebration of Mass on a Sunday, we will want to come again and again to experience it. In the context of Ash Wednesday, we will want to put into practice the sign of the ashes throughout the period of Lent.
It is also interesting to realise that Pope Benedict chooses to reflect on the texts of the Liturgy that he celebrates, that is, the Ordinary Form and not the Extraordinary Form. I was interested by the fact that Pope Benedict chose to reflect on both of the texts that can be used during the imposition of ashes, thereby including that which would be used in the Extraordinary Form. But, in essence, Pope Benedict offers a catechesis on the Ordinary Form.