by Rev. Dustin Bartlett
There’s something compelling about Ash Wednesday. Something draws us into church in greater numbers, and with a greater sense of urgency, than is typical for a weekday church service. It’s something more than just habit or duty. What we say and do on Ash Wednesday has power.
A lot of that power comes from the fact that, on Ash Wednesday, the church speaks words of truth, words that cannot be ignored, or disputed, or evaded, or denied. Today we remind ourselves that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. There is no denying that fact.
Much of what we say in church cannot be proven. We have hope that it is true. We have faith that it is true. But the message of Ash Wednesday, that we are dust and to dust we shall return, requires no faith because we know it as fact. We are mortals. At some time in the past, we were born, and at some point in the future, we will die.
From dust, to dust. As if hearing that we will return to the dust is not enough, we are also covered with the dust. We are marked with ashes. Our inevitable fate will be visible for all to see.
Jesus, in the 6th chapter of Matthew, goes one step further. He reminds us that dust is the final destination, not just of our bodies, but of most of most of our life’s work as well. Moth and rust consume, he says, and thieves break in and steal. And we know this to be true, as well. These words of simple, absolute truth give us a perspective the world tries both to hide and to deny – and that we usually do our best to ignore.
Dust and ashes. These are what we see if we look ahead far enough and honestly enough. These are the final return on virtually every investment we make. On Ash Wednesday we proclaim this truth, and we feel its truth and its power.
And that looks like bad news – unmitigated bad news – even though we have known it all along. These grim, honest words can be devastating. We all know the discomfort of contemplating the absolute certainty of our death.
But I believe that good news is to be found in the ashes. To find the good news of a brighter future, we must begin by turning to the past. We must go back to the beginning.
The Bible, in the second chapter of Genesis, tells us that the dust we come from is no ordinary dust, because it was formed God himself. “Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” We exist, not as the result of the random processes of an uncaring universe, but as the result of an act of love. Our dust was molded by the very hands of God.
So it is good news that we are dust. Our dust is holy, our ashes are blessed by the power of God. What appears at first to be a threat, that we are dust, becomes, instead, a promise. The grace and love present at our creation will see us through our physical disintegration and beyond. God is with us from our very beginnings, and before our beginnings. Our dust is holy because it is cherished by God.
The good news of the ashes is that, when they are placed on our heads, they are tossed there haphazardly. They are not scattered at random. They are placed in the form of a cross, so that we are connected to, and have a share in, the resurrection. Yes, we will return to the dust. But when we return to the dust, we go there with Christ, and from there we will rise with Christ.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. And as you remember, rejoice, for God is with us – in the beginning, at the end, and even now as we live in between. Repent and return to God, for the One who created us is calling us to himself. To this end, we are given the special gift of Lent – a time to allow us to hear that call with some real depth, and to respond.