True, that is not the whole account of the matter. Alone among the creatures, man can look back upon himself and become the object of his own thought, can distinguish the world he knows from himself as knowing it. In the exercise of that faculty, he transcends the limits of mere matter. Nevertheless he is dust. The liaison between body and soul must not be explained away by talking as if the body were a cage which imprisons, or a garment which clothes, the soul. This body of mine is myself. And we are encouraged at the beginning of Lent, to humiliate ourselves by remembering what, on that side of our nature, we are.
The Ash Wednesday message is at the same time one of comfort. For, as the Psalm tells us, God "knows our fashioning; he remembers that we are dust." We need to be reminded of it once a year; he remembers it all the time. He knows all the flaws in our make-up which predispose us to this or that bad habit; the force of every temptation. If we are tempted to lose heart because we so often fall short of our own ideals, are false to our own natures, it is important once again to remember that we are dust; there is a natural instability about us which explains, and perhaps extenuates, actions which it cannot excuse.
It is not plain dust that is used on Ash Wednesday, but ashes - those of the palms which were carried in procession on Palm Sunday the year before. It is the dead remains of something we can remember as a living thing not so very long ago; the embers of glory. The symbolism of that is plain and hackneyed enough.
The ashes are a foretaste of the dust that will rattle, one day, on our coffin. And, by a kind of grim irony, spring, early or late, is the moment chosen for this importunate reminder. Just when earth is beginning to put out its first shy promise of green, we are plucked by the sleeve and reminded that we are dust. Several of the Saints have owed their conversion to the contemplation of an open tomb. But the experience came to them in youth; only so can it come as a revelation. I suppose that is why Lent happens in spring.
Stimuli Ronald Knox, 1951 Sheed & Ward