By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
“Dust you are and to dust you will return.” To me, that’s one of the most familiar lines in all of Scripture. I’ve said this very thing to individuals at least 2,000 times throughout my life. Now, if you’re not familiar with Christian practices related to Ash Wednesday, it probably sounds odd to you. Why would anyone say such a thing to people, not to mention thousands of times? But, if you have participated in an Ash Wednesday service, you realize that when I said to people, “Dust you are and to dust you will return” is in the context of imposing ashes on the foreheads of worshipers.
I did not grow up with an awareness of Ash Wednesday. But, twenty-six years ago, I found myself as the senior pastor of a Presbyterian church that did recognize Ash Wednesday and Lent. In fact, Irvine Presbyterian Church sponsored an Ash Wednesday service, complete with the imposition of ashes (placing ashes on people’s foreheads). So I quickly had to learn something about this holy day, since I was expected to lead the service. In that context, I learned to impose ashes in the form of a small cross and to say as I did, “Dust you are and to dust you will return.”
Ash Wednesday is a day many Christians set aside as a special day. Some Christians do not recognize Ash Wednesday or Lent because Scripture does not require acknowledgement of these special days. Yet, the themes of Ash Wednesday and Lent are deeply shaped by biblical revelation. In particular, Ash Wednesday is a day to remember our humanness and mortality. It is a day to begin the season of Lent, a time for reflection, penitence, and preparation for Easter. (If you’d like to learn more about Ash Wednesday, you might find helpful a short piece I’ve written on the subject: Ash Wednesday: Meaning and Practice. Also, I’ve written a short introduction to Lent: How Lent Can Make a Difference in Your Relationship With God.)
There is bad news in Ash Wednesday services. As you may recall, the line “Dust you are and to dust you will return” was spoken by the Lord to Adam after he had sinned. Whereas, Adam once enjoyed the reality of deathless life in God’s perfect creation, now his body would die. In time, he would return to the dust from which he was made.
This was bad news for Adam. And it is bad news for us. Like Adam, we have come from dust, and to dust we will return. Throughout our lives, our dusty bodies remind us of our mortality, when they get sick, or when they work imperfectly, or when they age, or when they stop working altogether. Often, our bodies are the instruments of sin, rather than of God-honoring work and worship.
Of course many good things come from our bodies, including new human life, fulfilling work, loving embraces, and acts of charity. The inherent goodness of our bodies has not been obliterated by sin, though it has been tarnished and twisted.
Nevertheless, Ash Wednesday begins with bad news. It invites us into a time of extended contemplation and contrition, as we consider during Lent just how much we need God to save us from our sin.
But Ash Wednesday also signifies hope. The ashes that are imposed on our heads form the shape of a cross. Sometimes these crosses are obvious; sometimes more subtle. But the very stuff that symbolizes our mortality and sin also alludes to that which will set us free. It reminds us that God has entered into our human condition in order to break the power of sin and welcome us into the fullness of his life.
Yet Ash Wednesday is not Good Friday. It is not a day to focus on the cross so much as a time to begin to realize just how much we need the cross. Thus, Ash Wednesday points ahead, to the Holy Week that comes at the end of Lent, and most of all to the cross of Christ. Jesus took upon himself our “dustiness,” our mortality, even our sin, so that we might experience the fullness of life, abundant life, eternal life through God’s grace.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
How have you experienced Ash Wednesday in your life, if at all?
What reminds you of your mortality, your “dustiness”?
Do you think it’s a good thing for Christians to focus on our mortality? Why or why not?
What might you do in the next 40 days (plus six Sundays) to prepare for a deeper experience of the reality of Good Friday and a more joyous celebration of the truth of Easter?
Gracious God, you created this world as a thing of beauty and perfection. Indeed, you made human beings in your own image. Yet we have tarnished that image through our sin. We have corrupted both ourselves and our world. We are “dusty” mortals who will die. We are sinners in need of a savior.
O Lord, I experience my “dustiness” in so many different ways. Usually I try to ignore it, or I complain about it. But, today, I am letting the fact of my mortality sink in. I am reminded of how much I need to be saved and set free. I am reminded of how much I need you!
As we begin the season of Lent, may this be, indeed, a time for me to grow in my relationship with you. May I be unafraid to look at myself honestly, especially those parts of my life that are all too “dusty.” May I turn to you in this season in a special way, so that I might be prepared to celebrate the amazing news of Good Friday and Easter.
All praise be to you, O God, because you have not abandoned me in my mortality. All praise be to you for the hope that you give. Amen.
Image Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Brian May – This Image was released by the United States Navy with the ID 080206-N-7869M-057. Public Domain, Link.