To Dust You Shall Return

Words by Théa Rosenburg

Ash Wednesday admits the dark into an otherwise well-lit space. We dim the lights—no, we shut them off. And in their place, we light candles, but around the candles’ contained glow is shadow. That shadow alters familiar faces, draws us near to one another in a ring around our pastor and around the table that ordinarily holds the bread and the wine. Today that table holds candles, a cross, and a small dish of ashes. 

Those ashes wait as we read the liturgy. They wait as we sing hymns, somber ones in minor keys. They wait until our pastor takes them up and calls us to him, pronouncing ancient words over each of us as we move toward him in single file. We lower our eyes as he says them, and we remember who we are: 

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. 

He then marks our foreheads with ash, drawn on in the shape of a cross. 

Why do we do this?

We are sons and daughters now, bought and redeemed. Why spend an evening in half-darkness, reading bitter parts of Scripture and pondering death? 

Christians observe Ash Wednesday for as many reasons as there are denominations. Without giving a general survey of the history of Ash Wednesday (and, therefore, Lent), I can’t do even a handful of those reasons justice. But I can tell you why we celebrate—or more specifically, why I celebrate—which is this: 

Ash Wednesday is the opening day of Lent, a forty-six day season of preparation for Easter, which is, in a way, like a minor key version of Advent. During Advent we prepare for the coming of Jesus with cookies and gifts and jubilant carols; during Lent, we look not toward the birth of Christ, but toward his death and resurrection. We set aside the things that may draw our attention away from Jesus during that season and, through various forms of fasting, make room in our lives for deepened meditation and prayer. Ash Wednesday is an entry point into that season, for there is no better place to start a long contemplation of the Cross than with that simple fact: 

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. 

We all share the heritage of the first man. God made him from the dust of the earth and breathed into his nostrils and the man came alive. We share, too, the heritage of the first woman, who was shaped from the rib of the sleeping man and held both the dust and the breath in her body. 

But we also share in the curse they took with them from the Fall: when the man and woman ate the one fruit they’d been forbidden, they turned their back on the God who had opened the whole of the garden to them—with that one exception. They cut the tie that linked them to him, the source of Life, and their bodies began to decay. Aches and illness and old age assailed them, for they were no longer creatures who came from the earth and went on indefinitely, but beings who both began and ended their days in the dirt. 

When the Lord outlined the consequences of their betrayal, he put it this way: 

“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 will return.” (Genesis 3:19) 

If we were something greater than dust, we might be tempted to see the Cross as a nice gesture, something that makes us feel loved and valued, something that we could thank God for while waving our hands at it generally and saying, “Oh, no, you shouldn’t have.” We could enjoy our inclusion into God’s family as a gift, but not a necessary one. 

But when we remember that we are beings destined for the dust, the Cross looks different. It is our only path into the arms of our Heavenly Father, an assurance that though we are dust, he loves us. The Cross exposes his love as longsuffering and incomprehensible: the Creator of all things humbled himself, became dust and dwelled with us. He died for us, so that we might share no longer in Adam’s heritage, but in his: Jesus’s death gives us hope that “as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Cor. 15:49). 

The Cross, seen that way, seems suddenly necessary, absolutely necessary, and we do not wave it away but rather fall to our knees, overcome. 

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. 

So, is our Ash Wednesday service a morbid reminder of our own mortality? Yes. Partly. Because that remembrance of death, our death, is the gate through which we must pass if we are to recognize what Christ’s death accomplished. If we are to rejoice in the God who gives us beating hearts, we must admit to first bearing hearts of stone. If we are to praise the God who breathes new life into us, we must own that we were once dry bones. 

Observing Ash Wednesday or Lent is not required of Christians, nor should it be. But if we are to celebrate Christ’s Resurrection on Easter, then we must remember first his death on the Cross and, before that, the sin that severed us from God. We must remember our own helplessness to mend that severance in any way. We must start here, with the ashes. To love him for what he will make of us, we must remember first who we are: 

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.



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