Each Lent is a microcosm of our whole lives. “Remember that you are dust” — Lent begins on Ash Wednesday with a reminder of our very humble origin in the dust of the earth. “And to dust you shall return” — Lent reminds us that it’s not only our beginning that’s humble. Every earthly destiny converges in the inescapable truth of our bodily death and decomposition.

We are so used to the idea that we’re bound for heaven that we can subconsciously start taking it for granted. But Ash Wednesday reminds us of who and what we really are: “dusty” sinners. It reminds us of the complete otherness of God’s grace.

So to begin Lent, we are marked with dust, symbolizing our earthly origin and destiny. And by stages we make our way to Easter, to heaven, to the Resurrection. We are so used to the idea that we’re bound for heaven that we can subconsciously start taking it for granted. But Ash Wednesday reminds us of who and what we really are: “dusty” sinners. It reminds us of the complete otherness of God’s grace. And it reminds us of the fundamental and transformative difference God makes in our lives. There is no power native to the human race by which we could make the journey from earth to heaven. Such power can only come from above.

And so, even the ashes with which we are marked on Ash Wednesday are blessed and sprinkled with holy water. This reminds us of how the dust of our bodies was once washed in the waters of baptism. One of the major Lenten themes is that of baptism, which is our introduction into divine life and our insertion into the Paschal Mystery of Jesus. And on Ash Wednesday, we celebrate the Holy Eucharist. In the Mass, Jesus gives Himself to us as Paschal Food and Drink so that we might have the strength to continue our journey.

God’s grace is transformative, and that is one of its greatest qualities. God does not merely bombard us from the outside, but transforms the very dust of our earthly selves from within. He makes us like Himself, living His life, loving as He loves, becoming holy as He is holy.

And it is one of God’s masterstrokes that, in an almost unfathomable mystery, He leaves room for our cooperation in this process of transformation. We need to say “yes.” We need to work at the Christian life. We need to “repent and believe in the Gospel.” During Lent, we fortify our cooperation with grace by the works of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. We perform these works with the urgency communicated in the first and second readings of the Ash Wednesday Mass, and with the purity of heart for which Jesus calls in the Gospel:

It’s funny how giving up chocolate and praying a little bit extra each day can make Lent seem like it’s dragging along at a glacial pace. In reality, it comes and goes like the blink of an eye, and it reminds us of the quickness with which our whole lives pass.

“Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart” (Joel 2:12).

“Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (II Corinthians 6:2).

“Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them … and your Father who sees in secret will repay you” (Matthew 6:1a, 4b).

It’s funny how giving up chocolate and praying a little bit extra each day can make Lent seem like it’s dragging along at a glacial pace. In reality, it comes and goes like the blink of an eye, and it reminds us of the quickness with which our whole lives pass. We have only now to turn our lives over to the Lord. This is one of the simplest and most basic ways to understand the mission of our efforts to unleash the Gospel: to show our neighbors here in southeast Michigan the urgency of turning our whole lives over to the Lord Jesus.

That they, and we, have lived to see this Lent is a gift and an opportunity to walk with Jesus from dust to death, and from death to Easter glory.

Fr. Charles Fox is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit currently assigned to the theology faculty of Sacred Heart Major Seminary. He is also a weekend associate pastor at St. Therese of Lisieux Parish in Shelby Township and chaplain and a board member of St. Paul Evangelization Institute, headquartered in Warren.