By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”
Today is Ash Wednesday, one of the most important days in the Christian year. Millions of Christians throughout the world will acknowledge this day by attending special worship services and having ashes imposed on their foreheads. (I should add that millions of other Christians, especially in the Protestant and Eastern Orthodox traditions, will not do anything special today, and that’s okay. Celebrating Ash Wednesday is not a biblical requirement for all Christians, though it is a way for some Christians to engage biblical truth in a transformational way. If you’d like to learn more about Ash Wednesday, you can check out what I’ve written here.)
Ash Wednesday reminded me – and still reminds me – that death is one of the great “levelers” in our world. No matter how powerful or wealthy you might be, no matter how influential your leadership, you will die, just like every other human being.”
The biblical basis for Ash Wednesday comes in Genesis 3, after the man and the woman sinned against the Lord. Both of them will continue to do the work God had assigned to them in Genesis 1 and 2. But now their work will be filled with struggle and pain. As Genesis 3:19 states, they will eat bread “by the sweat of your face.” It will take extra effort to grow wheat because of the thorns and thistles that will complicate farming as a result of human sin.
But that’s not all. Even more distressing is the latter portion of verse 19, which reads, “[Y]ou are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The man, to whom God is speaking in verse 19, was created from the ground, from the dust of the earth. Though God had intended for the man, along with all other human beings, to be immortal, sin twisted the divine intention. Now, the one who came from dust will die and return to dust.
When ashes are placed on the heads of Ash Wednesday worshipers, the one imposing the ashes utters a version of the last part of Genesis 3:19, something like, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The ashes represent the dust, the ground from which we have been created and in which, one day, we will be buried. Though the language of Ash Wednesday is symbolic, the meaning is clear: You are mortal. You will die.
This is not good news, of course. It’s the bad news that prepares us to hear the good news of God’s saving grace in Christ. The fact that we will die gets us ready to hear the good news from Jesus, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live” (John 11:25).
If you read the title of this devotion, you might be wondering what all of this has to do with work? Plenty, I think. I could imagine spending at least a couple of weeks focusing on the implications of Ash Wednesday for our work. But, right now, I don’t want to get too far away from our reflections on the story of Joseph. So, I’m going to limit myself to three days of devotions connecting Ash Wednesday to work, beginning today with a brief comment.
During my sixteen-year tenure as Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, I led our annual Ash Wednesday services in which I was one of those who imposed ashes on the foreheads of worshipers. More than 2,000 times in those sixteen years, I put ashes on someone’s forehead in the shape of a small cross and said, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (from Gen 3:19).
Every single year, I was struck by the diversity of people who received this symbol of mortality. Sometimes I’d put ashes on the foreheads of very young infants. More than once I imposed ashes on a senior adult who was very near to death. Some of those who received ashes were people of significant societal influence, such as a man who ran a company with tens of thousands of employees or another man who was a prominent elected official. Most of those who heard from me that they were dust, however, were not people of extraordinary influence. They were lawyers and teachers, moms and dads, doctors and police officers, grandfathers and grandmothers, friends and neighbors.
Ash Wednesday reminded me — and still reminds me — that death is one of the great “levelers” in our world. No matter how powerful or wealthy you might be, no matter how influential your leadership, you will die, just like every other human being. That’s true for the people you lead, as well as those who lead you. No matter our work or the power we wield through it, we have all come from dust and to dust we will all return.
After each Ash Wednesday service at Irvine Pres, I felt deeply bonded to my congregation. Yes, my work was to lead that particular church, and, yes, some of our members were exceptional leaders in business and government, but when it came to mortality, we were all in this together. We were all sinners on our way to earthly death. We were all sinners in need of salvation. The hierarchies that often segregate us in the workplace pale in significance to what we share together as human beings.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
If you have participated in an Ash Wednesday service, what struck you about this experience?
Whether you celebrate Ash Wednesday or not, how does the fact of your mortality make a difference in your life?
How might the fact that all humans are “dust” make a difference in your leadership?
Gracious God, indeed, we are dust and to dust we shall return. Because of our sin, we will die. Our common mortality binds all human beings together. It reminds us of one way that we are all alike.
Yet, dear Lord, the sad truth of Ash Wednesday prepares us for the glad truth that is still to come. As we reflect on our mortality, we find ourselves yearning for you, for the salvation you alone can give, for the life that flows from your own life.
As we do our work today, as we exercise leadership given to us, may we do so with a deep sense of what we share with those we lead. May the fact of our “dustiness” keep us from pride, but rather enable us to lead with genuine humility and dependence on you.
We pray through Christ our Lord, Amen.