From the Dust
Today, I’m going to say something to you that isn’t true, or at least, it isn’t the whole truth. I’ll let you figure out which part isn’t the whole truth. One of the goals of an Ash Wednesday service is to remind of us our own mortality. The words that the celebrant speaks at the imposition of ashes are an imperative: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. The words refer not so subtly to the curse of Genesis 3 where God says to Adam,
And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
When God spoke those words, not so much cursing Adam but rather making clear the consequences of his actions, he was speaking not merely to our primordial ancestor, but to each and every one of us. As long as the Lord tarries, none of us will escape this end.
Humanity was formed when God took clay and breathed into it the breath of life, and in that moment Adam became a living being. However, without access to the tree of life, we are no longer living beings (at least not in the same way). Now, because of sin, we have become “dying beings,” for the wages of sin is death. Our bodies do their very best to keep us alive, but they, like everything else in the physical universe, are subject to entropy and decay. Paul says that the whole world was subjected to futility, and human beings are no exception. We are dust and to dust we shall return. This is the human condition. This is the plight of humanity. This is our end, and I was reminded of this fact on Sunday as I sat with Keith and Carol during what turned out to be the last hours of Carol’s life.
Fr. Martin once said to me that a priest invests in people when it doesn’t matter so that you earn the privilege of being with them when it does matter. It was my privilege to sit with Carol in those finals hours and to pray with her and with Keith.
The service I prayed with and for Carol is called Ministry to the Dying, but often it is known as Last Rites. As part of the service, I anointed Carol with oil. I made the sign of the cross on her forehead. It was not lost on me in that moment that only a few days later, I would be making the same sign on all of your foreheads as well, and not with oil to anoint you but with ashes to remind you that all of us will end up at the same place. Ashes and dust. That is our end. When you come forward for the imposition of ashes today, you do so in solidarity with Carol and all who have lived and died before you and you acknowledge, apart from Christ, “this is my end.”
But it is that “apart from Christ” bit that makes all the difference, isn’t it? It would be utterly nihilistic if we were all gathered together today merely to have someone say to us, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” and then rub some ashes across our foreheads. But this isn’t nihilism. We do not believe that ashes and dust are our end. We do not believe that Carol’s story came to an end Sunday afternoon. “You are dust, and to dust you shall return,” is only part of the story. It’s not the whole truth.
Ash Wednesday is, for obvious reasons, closely associated with ashes, but maybe ashes aren’t the most important part of this day. After all, we already have a room full of ashes and dust. You, me, everyone here, everyone we know - just give us some time. Ashes and dust are all around us. What matters today isn’t the ashes, but rather that ashes are used to make the sign of the cross, the sign of our salvation.
When you come forward for the imposition of ashes, you are not merely saying, “This is my end.” On the contrary, you are saying loudly and unequivocally, “Apart from Jesus Christ this may be my end, but it is not ashes and dust that define me but the cross of Jesus Christ.” For it is not the ashes which define the cross but the cross that gives definition to the ashes. It is the cross that redeems our decay. It is the cross that undoes the curse spoken to Adam, which means that the cross undoes the very words that I will speak to you as I impose the ashes on your forehead. For you are dust, and to dust you shall return, but thanks be to God, because of the cross of Jesus Christ, you are far more than dust and from the dust you shall rise again. The cross redeems the dust, the decay, the despair, the disorder, and even death itself.
If I didn’t believe that, what would I have said to Keith this past Sunday? What would I have said to Carol in the last hours of her life? It is the great power of God not only to create life from dust, but to give eternal life back to the dust, to once again breathe into dust the breath of life and make us all living creatures once again.
Of course, our human nature is to want to earn this great gift, but the sign of the cross made in ashes on our forehead speaks a word to us about that as well. The sign of the cross does not say to us, “If you want to rise from the dust again, here is what you must do.” Rather, it says to us, “I have already done it for you. I have already paid the price for your sin. I have already made atonement to make sure that dust is not your end. Yours is but to repent and believe, so that is what we will do. Not to earn rising again from the dust, but in response to the tremendous gift that God has already given us in the cross of Jesus Christ. For our sins may be many, but his mercy is infinite, and we may return to the dust from which we came, but because of the cross of Jesus Christ, from the dust, we will rise again. Breathing life into dust is what God does, and one day he will do it again.