Remember that you are dust and that to dust you shall return.
These words have been spoken in churches around the world this Ash Wednesday and will be spoken later today in our own church. These words are a call to ponder our mortality, to examine our souls and repent for our sins, to begin the slow march to the cross of Christ and to the new life of resurrection on the other side.
In a culture that is terrified of death and furiously tries to keep it out of sight, in a culture that fetishizes youth and beauty and strength but cares little for the wisdom and maturity of age, in a culture where “sin” is a foreign concept, where we understand ourselves mainly as victims of biological and social forces beyond our control (at least when we are in trouble or have done something that has led to negative effects… when things are good, we are pleased to assume responsibility), in a culture whose horizons have dramatically shrunk to a kind of default hedonistic present with no thought for eternity… Yes, in this culture need Ash Wednesday.
I am a latecomer to Ash Wednesday. It was not part of the tradition I was raised in, and this will be only the second time I have participated in an Ash Wednesday service. And I bring the typical latecomer enthusiasm! In a broader church culture that speaks often and loudly of victory, of power, of joy, and of Jesus standing at the ready to turn me into the best me I can be, I like the fact that we set aside time to focus on darker themes, on the shadow side of faith, on the somber realities that led to the cross in the first place.
But on a personal level, I have rarely needed the reminders occasioned by this important date in the church calendar. I have rarely needed reminding of my mortality. Even as a kid, I thought often of death, of my own death, when it might be, how it might look and feel, etc. I even perversely did the math and imagined what year I might die. And while not quite as obsessed with my own sinfulness as Luther is said to have been, I do not often need to be prodded into contemplating the scope and variety of the ways in which I daily miss the mark. I am, in many ways, my own harshest critic. “My sin is ever before me,” as David lamented in Psalm 51. I don’t even need much of a spur to contemplate the reality of a life beyond this one. I have spent a good chunk of my life studying philosophy and theology, after all (which has kept me in touch with suffering!). I have been untethered from the merely terrestrial for quite some time now.
So, aside from little details like my job requiring that I am present tonight, why bother with Ash Wednesday? If I am already so highly (and humbly!) attuned to the darker side of life and faith, why mess around with ashes and contemplation and reflection and silence and all that? Well, I suppose that Ash Wednesday could, in addition to delivering a reminder that I am “dust,” provide a space for coming to a kind of peace with the inherent limitations of human existence, with the non-negotiable fact that, though experienced in different degrees by different people, there is dissatisfaction built into the equation of life.
I am now closer to forty than thirty. This is mildly, if utterly banally disturbing but who can slow the hands of time? I think that when I was a kid, I imagined that I would have a whole lot more figured out by now. I assumed that I would be wonderfully settled and secure, confident and competent in whatever my hands had found to do, that family life would be straightforward, that I would be comfortably nestled into the groove of life, that my faith would be impregnably secure, etc., etc. Um, right.
Of course, life doesn’t exactly work that way. It’s a bit… I don’t know, dustier than that. My sin and stupidity and insecurity and boredom and lack of creativity and impatience and weariness tend to keep getting in the way of this mid-life Shangri-La that was supposed to be cheerfully waiting for me. And—would you believe it?—other people have the same or similar limitations and struggles that I do, and all of our dust keeps getting mixed up together into this big cloud that can be difficult to see through or to breathe in.
Remember that you are dust… and remember that God knows that we are dust (Psalm 103:14).
And keep remembering…
Not only to lament and to repent and to grieve, but to come to terms.
Not only to self-flagellate, but to accept and forgive.
Not only to dwell with death but to long for life.
Not only to rehearse the familiar narrative of wilderness and cross and empty tomb, but to celebrate—truly celebrate!—that the God who takes human sin so seriously that he dies to heal the wound of the world is also the God who stands, arms wide open, to welcome dusty prodigals home.