Remember you are dust

Question: In the past on Ash Wednesday, when the priest distributed ashes to the people he would say, "Remember, man, you are dust and to dust you will return." This year the priest used a new formula that I could not figure out. Is the priest free to change the words like this?

-- Name withheld, South Bend, Ind.

Answer: Actually, the Roman Missal used in the Church since 1970 allows the priest on Ash Wednesday to use an alternative formula should he wish. The alternate words are: "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel" (based on Mk 1:15). From my experience most priests use the traditional formula, but it is wise to use each on alternate years, explaining to the people that the official liturgical books provide two formulas.

Using the formula you mention makes a stark statement that we all face the dissolution of death and that sooner or later we will be dust. That realization is a sobering one and is meant to bring us face to face with our mortality and our limitations.

The overall effect is to make us realize that so many of the things and projects to which we are committed are of no ultimate value and that in the end everything dissolves into dust. It helps us get our priorities straight.

The second formula complements the first (although they are never used together). It reminds us that the purpose of our Lenten penance is not merely negative. Lent serves to bring about a new commitment to the Gospel way of life. In biblical times people wore sackcloth and ashes not as ends in themselves, but as a prelude to conversion and renewal of life. The exterior symbols were meant as an impetus toward penance and the invocation of God's forgiveness.

Ages of the world

Question: In an old history book on Christianity, I came across a reference to the "sixth age of the world." It said that according to some we are living today in the sixth age. Where does this idea come from?

-- Patrick L. via e-mail

Answer: The idea of the "sixth age of the world" comes from a scheme for organizing history popularized by St. Augustine in the fifth century. The notion that human history was organized into six ages was popular through the Middle Ages and up to the modern era.

The six-ages theory is based in the New Testament passage that states: "But of this one thing be not ignorant, my beloved, that one day with the Lord is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day" (2 Pt 3:8). From this statement it was deduced that humankind would live through 6,000-year periods or "days." The "ages" would reflect the six days of creation, which would be followed by the eternal seventh day.

The six ages of the world were detailed by St. Augustine as follows. The first age is the age that began with Adam and ended with Noah. The second age extended from Noah to Abraham. The third age extended from Abraham down to King David. The fourth age began with David and concluded with the Babylonian captivity. The fifth age was from the return to Jerusalem of the people of God down to the coming of Christ. The sixth age began with Christ's birth.

After St. Augustine, there was considerable speculation about the ages of the world, and especially about how the new age was ushered in by Christ. There was also particular concern about the time of the end of the world, when the final age would begin.

Historians and theologians do not think in those terms today, and modern Christians are guided by the sense that human history is less predictable and cannot be easily categorized.

Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to mfmannion@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.