Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
The Season of Lent begins with the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. (The picture included with this post is of the palms being burned at last year’s Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper). I still remember my first Ash Wednesday as a pastor, and especially imposing the ashes on the foreheads of my wife and children (who were 6 and almost 3 at the time). Kneeling at the altar, eyes closed, leaning forward in trust, it was very emotional for me to trace a cross in ashes on their foreheads as I gently spoke these words: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
So, why do it? Why do we have a day set aside in our liturgical calendar to remind ourselves of this? It seems kind of morbid, doesn’t it? But there are several reasons why it is not only important for us to do this, but also why so many Christians find it such a meaningful act.
A Sign of Mourning and Repentance
The first reason for receiving ashes is that it connects us to people throughout Scripture who regarded ashes as a symbol of mourning and repentance. A good example of this is in the Book of Jonah. After Jonah (finally!) did what the Lord asked of him, and called on the people of Nineveh to repent, the king of Nineveh covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes (Jonah 3:6) as a sign of mourning and to show repentance for his sins.
Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.Jonah 3:4-6
Job, too, repents in dust and ashes, after realizing he had questioned God about things that he did not understand:
I have uttered what I did not understand,Job 42:3-6
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
“Hear, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you declare to me.”
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.
These are just a couple of examples from scripture of ashes being used as a sign of our repentance. And so, on Ash Wednesday, we join with the great cloud of witnesses before us, turning to God as they did, with fasting and repenting in ashes, asking God to forgive us of our many sins.
A Reminder of Our Mortality
But ashes are not only a symbol of repentance and mourning. They also remind us of our mortality. And there are very few reminders of this in our culture today. A few more might actually be helpful! We as Christians believe that death is the consequence of our sin, and we all have sinned. And so, on Ash Wednesday we are reminded of the words spoken to Adam after he committed the first sin, by eating of the tree which he was commanded not to eat:
Out of the ground you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.Genesis 3:19
The old, sinful Adam within each of us hears these very same words when we kneel before the altar to receive our ashes. On Ash Wednesday, as we mourn the ways in which we have turned from God, we also accept that death is the consequence of our sin, and still we humbly and hopefully repent in ashes.
The Sign of the Cross and a Reminder or Our Baptism
But this, too, is not the end of the story. Thankfully! And so, the ashes which we receive on Ash Wednesday are placed on our foreheads in the sign of the cross, retracing the cross made at our baptism, when we were told:
You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.
The ashes imposed in the shape of the cross remind us that we have already died with the Lord, and if we have died with him then we will also be raised with him.
We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.Romans 6:4
Because of this, when we repent in ashes on Ash Wednesday, and mourn our sin and the sin of the world, we do so with the confidence that the One who sent Jesus to die for us also unites us with him in his death and resurrection, and empowers us through the Holy Spirit to repent and live new lives in Jesus Christ.
When I arrived at my current congregation, my very first worship service was on Ash Wednesday, which means that the very first words that I spoke to many of my new parishioners were, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” It seemed like a strange way to begin our relationship! But as I reflected on this, the first of these words became more and more significant to me: Remember.
Isn’t that what Ash Wednesday is all about? And isn’t that what church is all about? Remembering. Remembering our sin, yes, and our mortality, too. But more than that. We gather together on Ash Wednesday to remember not just that we are fallen sinners, but to remember that we are baptized children of God. We gather to remember not just that we will die, but that in Christ we are promised eternal life. We gather to remember not just that we are dust, but that we are dust that has been formed into God’s image, and we are dust that has been baptized into Christ, and so we are dust destined for an eternal relationship with our everlasting Creator.
And so, each year when Ash Wednesday approaches, my hope and prayer, both as a pastor and as a dad, has become that all who receive the ashes from me will be reminded of all these things, but especially that there is no more precious dust in all the world than the dust formed to become them. Remember, I pray. Remember all of this. Amen