Many people see it as a fearful thing, to go to church on Ash Wednesday and hear proclaimed “Remember O man that thou art dust, and to dust you shall return.” We don’t want to deal with our own mortality. An interesting fear, since everyone who is older than preschool knows that everyone dies eventually. Somehow we want to convince ourselves that we are the exception to the rules of Genesis 3.
For me, it is a more fearful thing to pronounce those words over others, especially when these others are colleagues, friends, neighbors. It is like a small and repeated dose of what physicians must experience when they tell a patient their disease is terminal. I’m sorry, you are going to die. There is nothing I can do for you.
Its a conflicting message, when the doctor you’ve trusted and who has genuinely struggled and worked to save your life, has failed. Its a conflicting message in the Church, too, but with different outcome.
How great a blessing, every Sunday, it is to look into the eyes of a loved one, a neighbor, even a stranger and say the words “the body/blood of Christ which was given for you preserve you body and soul into everlasting life.” Say it just once to someone, and you can’t help but look at them as Jesus does. You can’t help but love them.
And then, once a year, you look them in they eye and say “remember you are dust.” Remember you are going back to dust.
If dust were the end of the story, the other 364 days of the year, clergy would be liars. But what is remarkable is that even at Ash Wednesday, we don’t leave them at dust. Only a few minutes later, we look again on those ashen faces and lift the faithful up to God with those words, “the body and blood preserve you body and soul into everlasting life.”
Remember you are dust. You are formed by God’s hands. But you’re returning to the dust.
And God doesn’t leave you there. You are formed again, this time for life everlasting.
Its not a circle of life thing, not a reincarnation without end, but a singular recreation, this time without the corruption, without the ashes. There is no Ash Wednesday in the kingdom.
"Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." Paul to the persecuted at Philippi (2:5-11)