From Dust To Dust

For those who attend an Ash Wednesday service, they are marked with an ashen cross on the forehead as the pastor or priest recites Genesis 3:19:

For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Admitting that our finitude as humans is synonymous to that of the dust of the ground is a hard pill to swallow. More than just a statement that affirms our death, it reveals that we are dead in sin and wayward beyond belief. Although in my mind I believe this, my heart speaks another story.  The lie I often tell myself is that I am alive enough to do something that can counteract or lessen the blow of death. This “something” may be pronounced during Lent with attempts to give up certain comforts or vices but is also alive and well in every aspect of life throughout the year. Ventures to prove ourselves to others and self goes far beyond the reaches of Lenten piety and “sacrifice”. But whatever you do, and whatever capacity you do it in, the words of Ash Wednesday do not change:

For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

The ashes themselves symbolize our rebellion and waywardness we often neglect. Historically, the ashes were remnants from the palm branches of the previous year’s Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday symbolizes the day when people placed palm branches down as Jesus entered into Jerusalem on a donkey. The tragic irony of the ashes is a sobering realization. Bryan J. from Mockingbird Ministries explains:

…the same crowds that welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem would be calling for his crucifixion five days later. Ash Wednesday ash on our brow isn’t just a reminder of death and sin- it’s a reminder of Holy Week’s disingenuous praise. On day one of Lent, the season calls into question the Christian’s devotion and piety, taking the memory of last year’s joyous celebration and quite literally rubbing it in our faces. It is a tangible metaphor of the weakness of our spirituality: one moment a blaze of glory, the next without trace of burning ember.

That is where Ash Wednesday places us. Accepting the smeared ash on our forehead is a symbol of who we truly are – dead as dust. And in that death we are met by something totally outside of and beyond ourselves. But it’s not just a something. It’s a Someone. Someone who joins himself to us in our powerlessness and death because he loves us. Jesus Christ’s transformative love makes us far more alive than we were dead. Karl Barth writes:

Remember, this was the outcome of the Easter story, the history of Jesus Christ, just as death as the wages of sin was its beginning. With Christ’s resurrection from the dead God’s free gift, eternal life, entered the world. He, the dear son, he, the faithful and obedient servant, he who was willing to make our sin his own and to die our death in replacement of us, he, Jesus Christ, was raised from the dead and recalled from the tomb by the Father. He was robed in eternal life. But now remember also, dear brothers and sisters, that God so acted in Jesus Christ in order that we, truly all of us, without exception, may share in this free gift of life eternal. His story now becomes ours, just as before ours became his.

Our failures and flawed attempts to cover up our death and sin have been taken away by Jesus who confronted our death and throttled it. For those bound to die, the miracle of resurrection has been met in Jesus Christ.

For you are dust, and to dust you shall return…Repent and believe the good news.


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