Ash Wednesday: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Ash Wednesday Service at the Memorial ChurchMorning Prayer by Rev. Alanna C. Sullivan, Associate Minister in the Memorial Church. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell

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

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent for many Christians. For more than fifteen hundred years, Christians have used these words to mark the day as they dip their fingers into ash, and smudge bowed foreheads with the sign of the cross. The words allude to when God admonished Adam and Eve as they left paradise in the Book of Genesis.

As HDS Professor Stephanie Paulsell says, “When we repeat (the words), we remember that we continue that journey into the vast, fallen world. With our foreheads smeared with ashes, we are called upon to face our own mortality and failings.” 

It is sobering to confront the prospect of one’s own morality. Especially as we live in a culture that tells us if we maintain a strict diet, if we stockpile money, if we track our steps, if we master life… we can cheat death. In our heart of hearts, however, we know quite simply this isn’t true.

In the act of receiving ashes, we are called to bare our whole selves to God — our beautiful, messy, sinful selves. There is no hiding behind veiled words or illusive concepts. Ash Wednesday cuts through all of that.

I find comfort in the transparency and honesty of day. When we confess our human brokenness and finitude, there is a sense of relief and liberation that comes with knowing it is not all up to us. God is God, and what’s more God loves and welcomes us without condition or exception. 

My prayer for us today comes from a poem by Jan Richardson called “Ash Wednesday: Blessing the Dust.”

So let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are
but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
is made,
and the stars that blaze
in our bones,
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
we bear.

What we keep at bay becomes the very thing our faith depends on. By admitting our own finitude we see God’s infinitude, confronting death brings us new life, knowing our limits gives us freedom, and through the mess of dust that we come to know the holy.