Dust

Ash Wednesday
Readings: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Ps 103:8-18; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

“For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust,” (Psalm 103:14).

The great Lenten journey begins with the imposition of ash, our foreheads marked by the cross. The ashes themselves come from the Palm leaves waved on the Sunday of the Passion—once luscious and vibrant, full of life, burned to become ash for our heads. A tangible reminder of the finiteness of things, which once were and are no longer.

A tangible reminder of our finiteness: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Lent begins with a reminder: you are mortal. “As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more,” writes the Psalmist (103:15-16).

To recall our mortality may at first seem rather morbid but in fact it names an essential part of being human: “For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust.” “Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”

The Latin word for earth or ground, the dust from which we are made, is humus, from which we get the English word humility. Humility—here’s a word that names the sort of remembering that Christians are called to especially during Lent.

It is hard to follow Jesus without humility and we cannot follow Jesus for very long before learning it. Humility then is an important virtue and gift for the Christian life and it presupposes three things that I want us to think about for a few minutes: that we are God’s to begin with, that God wills us to be His in the end, and that we stray and must return.

Remembering our mortality humbles us because by it we come to learn that we are God’s to begin with. That is to say, we are creatures of His own fashioning. Our life, it turns out, is not ours at all but has been donated to us by God, who is life.“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The ashes smudged on our foreheads, a visible reminder that we are mortal creatures.

In a culture like ours this is not always a welcome message. That we are mortal means that we have limits and bounds beyond which we are unable to venture. As the Psalmist says elsewhere, “You hem me in—behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me,” (139:5). In an age when one of the highest goods is the right of autonomous individuals to self-determination, we hear the Christian story: our lives are not our own. Therefore, we are not self-determined but rather determined by God who made us, who hems us in, who knows our frame.

In the opening of his Confessions St. Augustine wrote: “Man is one of your creatures, Lord, and his instinct is to praise you. He bears about him the mark of death, the sign of his own sin, to remind him that you thwart the proud. But still, since he is a part of your creation, he wishes to praise you. The thought of you stirs him so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises you, because you made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

That we are God’s creatures means not only that our life comes from and is sustained by God but also that the goal of our life is to be with God. Our life, finite and hemmed in as it is, yet opens up time and space for us to know and love God in and through and with Jesus Christ, which is the fullness of life, no matter how many days we are granted here on earth.

However, as Augustine notes, sin has a way of obscuring the reality that we are God’s and that the goal of life is to praise God. We have strayed and do stray, our hearts err and are deceived into pursuing lesser goods and pleasures. We know the pull of hubris, to think that we have the right to self-determination, to claim ownership of the life that is pure gift.

Even still, our creaturely instinct is to praise God and we are restless until we do. We long to praise him. This is the dignity of human creatures: that we are called into relationship with God. That from the very moment we come into being we are invited to converse with God. Indeed, it is for this very reason that we exist at all: because God has created us by love, and by love sustains us. And having sinned and gone astray, still God in love pursues us for he despises nothing which he has made.

“For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust.” We remember, but God too remembers and in remembering humbles himself and assumes our humility. Becoming like us that we might become like him, taking on the dustyness of our frame that we might take on the glory of his immortality. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God,” writes Paul. 

That is why your head is marked not just with ashes—a reminder of your mortality. But with ashes in the form of the cross—a reminder of God’s steadfast love which breathes new life into our dusty frame (Psalm 103:17). Because it is on the cross that we come face to face with the humility of Christ, “that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body, And our souls washed through his most precious Blood, And that we may evermore dwell in him, And he in us. Amen.”

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