“Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” We will hear it this Wednesday, this “Ash Wednesday”—a day of penance and fasting. Seemingly a gloomy day. A day where we find out which TV personalities are Catholic, or at least which news anchors or sports commentators decided not to wash their foreheads before going on camera. We may also see family and friends and coworkers donning their mark of having been to Mass, just the same.
“You are dust.”
It’s not the most positive or cheery phrase, if you think about it. Actually, most of us spend lots of time and money and energy trying to prove we are much more than dust—the very opposite of dust—trying to prove that we are worthy of love. But it doesn’t stop there.
“…unto dust you shall return.”
We are destined for death. “We are food for worms,” as John Keating puts it to the Dead Poets Society. All life comes to death. Not only are we dust, but unto dust we shall return.
I often approach Ash Wednesday with some fear—or at the very least unease. In a sense, I don’t want it to come. Ashes on my head? Fasting? And the reminder that I am dirt?
So why not do away with Ash Wednesday? Why not remove the words, and instead, say, “You are complete, and complete you shall remain”? Why not throw out the fasting and forget Lenten promises and bury the ashes and sing and dance for joy?
Because we are so incomplete.
So very incomplete—so very tired, weak, alone, fallen, afraid, and so desperately longing for wholeness. We acknowledge the many blessings we have been given. We celebrate the love of family, the warmth of friends, and the beauty of nature and music and love. But we simultaneously pine for the utterly satisfying, everlasting peace—and this simply will not come if we believe anything besides the truth: that we are dust without the grace of Christ. Indeed, we will return to dust until the day of the return of the Son of God.
In claiming our own inability to obtain fullness, we invite the One who can make us from dust into saints, from dirty clay to children of God. There is no need to throw out the ashes or Lenten promises, for all they strengthen our faith in the One who offers us fullness of life in Him.