Our entry into this period of self-examination and penitence traditionally begins with the visible mark of ashes on our forehead.
If you’re lucky, the mark resembles a cross – the sign of our faith. But, whether you receive the perfect ashen Roman cross or something resembling a smeared Rorschach inkblot, the meaning is the same: we are marked as members of the Body of Christ, and we acknowledge the origin and ultimate end of our human experience.
This reflection on the temporal portion of our lives – that which was born and will die – as opposed to our eternal spiritual lives, is reflected in the prayer said before imposition of the ashes:
“Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.”
That reminder of our mortality is summarized further, from Genesis 3:19, as the ashes are applied to the forehead: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
This is a solemn and beautiful ceremony, meant to focus our attention on penitence – on turning away from habits in our temporal lives that hinder our walk with God in our eternal souls.
But, the focus on ashes and dust also can come across as gloomy, guilt-ridden and just downright depressing. For many, Ash Wednesday is a spiritual two-by-four, drug out once a year to hit us in the back of the head with this message: “You’re all sinners; you are all going to die; repent; thanks be to God.”
There’s incontrovertible truth in that message. We sin. We are dust. If the experience of everyone who’s gone before us holds true, we also will return to that dust. That’s truth.
But there is hope beyond that truth.
In the trials of this life, and on the inward journey of Lent, we’re reassured in Isaiah 58:11 that “The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.”
No matter where our journey, physical or spiritual, takes us, God is there to provide for and guide us. And, at the end of our walk in this life, at our turning back to dust, we encounter the core truth of our faith: We go on. The essential tenet of our Christian belief is that life continues – is elevated – after that transformation, after our physical death.
But, the message of Ash Wednesday also need not be gloomy in terms of this life – in terms of how our physical “dustiness” relates to God and God’s creation.
We can relate to dust as our physical source and destination in terms of the Genesis story. But, the truth of our dusty nature isn’t limited to an allegorical reading of that passage, or to a literal reading of us being formed from the dust of this planet.
Science – the intellectual exploration of God’s physical creation – tells us all living creatures share the same atomic makeup as the stars in our galaxy. After searching 150,000 stars, they concluded our atoms are 97 percent the same as those stars, spanning across reaches of creation we couldn’t even imagine a few generations back. We are, in a tangible, scientific sense, dust – star dust.
At our atomic level, in our very elements, we are dust. But we’re not just any dust. We’re the same dust that makes up every living being on our planet, every star we see in the night sky, and billions of stars beyond our sight. We are one, physically and spiritually, with every living being and every piece of creation that is, ever has been and ever will be – all bound together by God’s love.
The psalmist tells us in Psalm 103 this bond in our shared dust is not a hindrance, not something that holds us back, but the common ground in which God washes clean our sins:
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far he removes our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
For he knows how we were made;
he remembers that we are dust.
God knows how we are made. And we are made to be one with each other, and one with God. When we kneel at the beginning of our Lenten journey, and acknowledge our commonality in ash and dust, we’re not just affirming our mortality. We are proclaiming our unity with God and with God’s creation. In accepting our place among the dust we claim our place with the Almighty.
Paul attests to this causal relationship, of surrendering all to claim all, in 2 Corinthians 6:
“We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”
On our knees, accepting the ashen cross, we mark ourselves as nothing but dust. And in that posture of humble penitence we prepare ourselves to possess everything. From that posture we go forward, into Lent, into the desert of our spirit, to seek Christ who walks before us.
Almighty and everlasting God, help us today to surrender the pretensions of our ego and to accept our ultimate physical and spiritual union with you and all of your creation. In that posture of surrender and acceptance, let us venture from this day forward into ourselves, searching out and turning from anything that denies our oneness with each other, and with you. Amen.