“Remember, Man, that You are Dust”: Karl Rahner on Ash Wednesday

(This is Neil.) This is the text of a sermon preached in Munich on Ash Wednesday 1967, first published in Geist und Leben 40 (1967) and then in Grace in Freedom (it is also available here). I would advise reading this sermon (really, all of Rahner’s sermons) more than once, but I’ve here taken the liberty of highlighting a few key sentences for those short of time.

It seems to me that contemporary artists and writers are more interested in truth than in beauty, if the latter is understood in the traditional sense. They speak more than heretofore about the unredeemed misery of our existence; they say that we are dust and ashes and return to dust, tired wanderers on dusty roads going where? We do not know. All amusements seem almost to be only a facade hiding anything but a natural joie de vivre. Is it then still necessary that we should gather here to be signed with a cross of ashes and to be told: Remember, man, that you are dust and will return to dust? Is it still necessary to commemorate the death of the Lord, which is only too present to us in our own life and in every mortal man, in whom we encounter Christ according to his own words? Yes, indeed, “It is right and fitting”, as we say in the Preface of the Mass. But there is a difference whether we proclaim our own misery or whether we let Christ tell us about it in the words of the Church. For if we say it ourselves it is almost inevitable that we should either protest against it or indulge in self-pity; at best we shall be at a loss, not knowing what to do about it all.

It makes a difference whether we mourn for ourselves or whether another is mourning for us. The latter comes very near to being a genuine comfort: true, our misery is not taken from us, on the contrary, the other says, with almost cruel directness that we are ourselves dust and ashes. But he who mourns with us has taken them into his very heart.

This mourning of Christ and the Church on our behalf means, first of all, that we are allowed to mourn, for our sorrow has not yet been overcome, neither by our own strength nor by the comforting of another. It means further that we are allowed to weep, we need not pretend that we can get over everything keeping a stiff upper lip, we may well be completely bewildered, unable to produce a harmony out of all the contradictions and dissonances of our life. For God alone can do this, and we ought not to pretend that we, too, could do the same. But if we entrust ourselves completely to the ineffable mystery of our God we shall not, indeed, be freed from our bewilderment; on the contrary, this will fall into the holy darkness in which it will become almost more cruelly painful than before. Nevertheless, there is no other way to dissolve it; it is still falling and has not yet been dissolved, therefore we are allowed to mourn.

The sorrow of Christ joins our sorrow and says: Your mourning is mine. In the darkness of death I cried out: My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? But before that I had said an incomprehensible mystery: Father, into thy hands I commend my life. Do not say that it was easier for me to mourn, because I was also God. I was and I am a man like you. True, I was the man in whom the Word of God had made humanity his own; but because of this absolute nearness I was also more exposed than anyone else, I could experience more poignantly what it means to be a man, who is not God. And how can you know what happens when God’s omnipotent love takes the misery of his creature to his own heart and lets it penetrate even into the center of this heart? How do you know what happens when his omnipotent love compels the ever-blessed God to suffer the misery of the creature as his own? Your sorrow is my own sorrow, thus says the voice of Christ in the words of the Church today.

But in thus mourning with us Christ and the Church are also asking us if we hear and accept the accusation underlying this mourning. Not all, but much of what we call our pain ought to be called our guilt. We cannot separate our guiltless torment from the torturing guilt in which we have involved ourselves. We are always experiencing the one pain in which our own guilt also calls to us, the guilt of unredeemed lust and rebellious despair. Hence, while sorrowing we also always accuse ourselves. And if Christ sorrows with us, he does not relieve us of the accusation which we should level against ourselves, if we would only understand our sorrow correctly.

The words said to us on Ash Wednesday as our truth, our comfort and our indictment are written in Scripture at the beginning of the history of mankind; they are a statement and a judgment of what man is from the beginning. These words concern a beginning, but they are said by God. They sound like a statement about our future, about the abyss of death into which we shall fall. But our future is not what is said to us in these words, so that we should know whence we come and what we must endure, our future is he who says these words; their deepest sense is that HE is addressing us. He speaks to us because he wants to be involved with us. He has not yet finished speaking, he will have done so only at the end, when he will have fully communicated himself. In hard words he reveals to us the abyss of our origin, in order to promise us himself as the abyss of our future. He is ours, this is our expectation and our hope against all hope. The future different from the past, else it would not be future. But there is future because there is hope.  

What has just been said about the meaning of the Ash Wednesday words could not have been said otherwise; yet all this will remain empty talk unless everyone applies it to himself, changing the general into the particular, for only thus can these words be realized in the individual life. Thus death will perhaps mean only the quiet patience with which we endure the boring daily round, a request for pardon and its granting; perhaps it means the patience with which we listen to, and bear with another, or the unrequited faithfulness of love. Such death may also mean that we overcome our irritation with someone we find uncongenial, or that we have the courage of our convictions without being accorded the esteem that often goes with it; it may mean being faithful to one’s own vocation even though this may not be popular at the moment. Nevertheless, all this is only a “meaning”; the words still remain general and carry no obligation. They can be made binding only by the action of one’s own heart, for this alone creates reality, eternity in time. For all these ordinary daily actions of a decent person really involve a death, namely the silent, unsung relinquishing of oneself and of the blind desire for felt happiness which is so unrewarded that we only experience it as just part of the daily round and cannot even savor it as an action that is its own reward. We die throughout our life. What matters is if we do it willingly, if the Passion of Christ is also our own deed through which we receive grace.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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