“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.