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By Deirdre A. McQuade
"Remember: You are dust, and to dust you shall return."
As a cradle Catholic, I heard this refrain nearly every year upon receiving ashes on my forehead. Other years, the gesture was paired with: "Repent, and believe in the Gospel." Both lines puzzled me, honestly. The one about dust seemed so final, almost devoid of hope, while the second appeared to air-brush over the reality of death, as if leaving "dust" out of it could avoid causing us discomfort.
As with so many things in our Catholic life, these lines must be taken together in fruitful tension, not isolation. In his 1996 Ash Wednesday homily, St. John Paul II preached: "We are called to take part in the Resurrection of Christ. For this appeal to resound within us with all its force at the beginning of the Lenten season, let us realize what death means... 'You are dust' ... 'Repent!... Believe in the Gospel'!"
But what does that mean in practice?
A woman who recently suffered a miscarriage offers one window into these mysteries. In her honest and courageous piece, "After My Miscarriage, I was Surrounded by the Culture of Death," author Anna O'Neil reflects on fundamentally different reactions to their family's loss. "My well-meaning doctors and caretakers thought that the most comforting thing would be to deny the reality of the death, or deny that every death is cause for weeping," she wrote, "I know differently, though. I know that death is always reason for weeping."
When she and her husband decided to reveal their grief to friends, the outpouring of support from people of faith was quite different. They acknowledged the O'Neils' loss, grieved and prayed with them, and asked what name they had given their son.
She reflected: "The culture of death is afraid of death, and so it tries to say that the loss of an unborn child isn't actually a death, or that death is not a tragedy if the life the child would have had would be hard. It tries to alleviate the pain of death by justifying it, but it comes up empty of comfort. Life, in contrast, weeps at death, but does not fear it. The antithesis to the culture of death is this belief in the resurrection."
Mrs. O'Neil's story is one of "dusty hope." Death is real. Grief is real. Weeping makes sense and is not to be silenced. At the same time—because Jesus really died, really was buried, and really rose again—we need not fear death having the final word. In the midst of our dusty lives, we can have hope. Denying the reality of death doesn't bring peace, God's love alone does—a peace that "surpasses all understanding" (Philippians 4:7). And that mysterious, peace-filled, tear-stained hope is a firm foundation for building a stronger culture of life.
Whether pregnancy loss has touched our own families or not, we all have burdens of grief. Perhaps this Lent, God the Father is calling us to acknowledge those losses and embrace "dusty hope."
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