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Dust: Ash Wednesday Reflection

Ecclesiastes 12:1-8

Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them’; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with the rain; on the day when the guards of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the women who grind cease working because they are few, and those who look through the windows see dimly; when the doors on the street are shut, and the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low; when one is afraid of heights, and terrors are in the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along and desire fails; because all must go to their eternal home, and the mourners will go about the streets; before the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity.


 

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

I have proclaimed those words in two spaces at Central Presbyterian Church: the chapel on Ash Wednesday and the memorial garden, where green grass grows above the ashes of beloved church members. I have stood on the holy ground by that grass to pray, weep, and sing of resurrection as we buried the ashes of people we loved.  

At the end of this Lenten journey, the church will gather in that grassy patch on Easter morning, to proclaim that the truth of life is good news for the dead.

Today, though, we proclaim some form of the opposite. If on Easter, we preach that the truth of life is good news for the dead, then, on Ash Wednesday, we preach that the truth of death is good news for the living.

Last week, I found myself chatting about Ash Wednesday with some church members. We were on a trip to visit our partner church in Haiti, and the slow journey along bumpy, unpaved roads provided plenty of time for theological reflection. We got to talking about the meaning of the day and, I began, “The ashes are a sign that we are finite, and broken, and…” Another person piped in, “And we are going to die!” We laughed at the truth of her point. Maybe we laughed because it made us uncomfortable. Maybe we laughed at the irony of discussing the meaning a high liturgical day while being tossed around the back of Toyota Landrover.

Vanity of vanities, says the teacher, all is vanity.

We bumped on along the road, crawling over every boulder and bouncing with every ditch. We arrived at the village of Trou Jacques to visit with the school children and see the school lunch program that our church sponsors. We met with women in their microloan program, started by our Haiti partnership. We visited the site of their new church, being built in memory of beloved church members. We talked about plans for a new cistern, to provide water for the village. I walked around with precious Haitian children holding my hands and tugging on my skirt, trying desperately to make me understand their creole words.

The day was filled with hope and joy, but I found myself feeling burdened and overwhelmed. There is so much need, both there and here. It felt like the weight of the world, or at least the weight of one village, was resting on my shoulders.

On the way back down the mountain that day, we split into two vehicles. Blake and I decided to make the return trip in the back of an open air pickup truck. The difference in comfort between the two cars is minute; you have to hold on equally as tight in each, and the air conditioning is no cooler than the breeze in the truck bed. The main difference between the two is the dust.  

I started noticing it within the first few minutes of the trip. As our tires spun on the rocks, clouds of dirt kicked up behind us. Fine, red dust began collecting in my clothes and hair, and it made the bench seats slippery, as if covered in baby powder. I sat in the relative quiet, listening to the hum of the truck engine, feeling the dust on my skin and in my lungs, and I felt these words, deep in my soul:

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

For a moment, I remembered that God was in charge. I remembered that it is not about me. I remembered that the weight of the world is not mine to carry, and my breath returned.

If on Easter, we preach that the truth of life is good news for the dead, then, on Ash Wednesday, we preach that the truth of death is good news for the living.

The good news of Ash Wednesday is that it is not about us. The weight of the world is not ours to carry, for we are dust. Beloved, baptized dust.

“And the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to the God who gave it.”

When we start to think that it is all about us, when we inflate our own self importance and start to suffocate under the weight of the world, let us stop to feel the dust on our skin and under our nails.

Remember that you are dust, and breath returns. 

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Remember that You are Dust: Ash Wednesday Reflection

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

The quote is from Genesis 3:19, and churchy types will remember hearing it said on two occasions: funerals and Ash Wednesday. The phrase is often said during the “imposition of ashes,” when one person makes the mark of the cross on the forehead of another, often using ashes from burned Palm Sunday fronds. It doesn’t sound like the most uplifting of rituals, and it’s not. But, in my experience, it is one of the most honest.

Two years ago, I co-led an Ash Wednesday service at a local retirement community and nursing home. In a creaky, old, 1970s-style auditorium, my older adult friends and I called ourselves to worship, confessed our sins together, and sang of God’s forgiveness. It came time for the imposition of ashes, and, after saying a few words of introduction, my colleague invited those who wished to receive ashes to come forward or raise their hands, noting that we would be glad to meet them at their seats. Following her lead, I picked up my small, oily tin of ashes and made my rounds around the room. I stopped at every raised hand, and nearly every hand was raised. I dipped my smooth, twenty-something-year-old finger in the black muck and dragged it gently across more beautifully wrinkled foreheads than I can count.

“You are dust,” I told them, “and to dust you shall return.”

It felt strange, even hypocritical, saying those words to people in their late 90s, even early 100s. I felt certain that these people did not need a reminder that they were going to die. It felt awkward. It felt pretentious. And then, four or five people into the ritual, a tiny, 90+ year old woman shattered my selfish worries with four small words.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” I told her.

Thanks be to God,” she told me, with eyes full of both confidence and humility.

Thanks be to God. It’s not the response that I expected, but it’s the response we all need to hear. Thanks be to God for breathing life into dust. Thanks be to God for making us dust, and thanks be to God for being more than dust. Remembering that we are dust means acknowledging how very small we are, how very great God is, and how very much God loves us. Remembering that we are dust means recognizing that, ultimately, we are not in control.

Remembering that we are dust means remembering that we belong to God, in life and in death. and thanks be to God for that.

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