Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. For Catholics, it marks the beginning of a period of penance, ashes being a Biblical symbol of mourning and repentance.
Interestingly, when the priest places the ashes on your forehead, he intones, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” What is the connection between dust and ashes? Dust is a reference to earth, to our being made from clay with life breathed into us by God, while ashes are what is left over from a burnt-out fire. There’s interesting things going on here with the elements; earth, air, water, fire.
All of this is symbolic of human mortality, but also suggests that we also transcend our morality. I am reminded of a song by Dream Theater called “Wait for Sleep”. It’s about a girl lying in bed thinking about God and faith. Near the end of the song, the question is asked, “In with the ashes / Or up with the smoke from the fire?” I think this question can be taken different ways, but I interpret it as asking, is the fire of life destructive or purgative?