On Ash Wednesday, clergy around the world will draw a cross-shaped smudge of dark black ashes on the foreheads of millions of people. It is the ancient rite of The Imposition of Ashes which signals the start of Lent. The words that accompany the ‘imposition’ on Ash Wednesday are simple, sober, and true. Over the years I have said them to thousands of people and many of their foreheads stand out in my memory. These are but a few.
—An older man shuffles forward to receive the ashes. This would be his last time…and he knows it. The cancer has eaten away at his esophagus and the doctor gave him less than nine months. He understands these eleven words more than most: Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
—A new mother presents her sleeping baby. The skin of the child is soft and pure…it seems too harsh to remind this woman that her child will die, would go down to the dust. How awful! But it is true. None are exempt. The words are hard to say, but I say them anyway and try to not wake the child. I touch the new forehead lightly: Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
—Once, a businesswoman stood before me in a smart looking suit. She was dressed for success. She had come during her lunch hour to our service at high noon. I press the ashes on her forehead and then realize that I am smudging her makeup too. Her careful facade has been marred by the sign of the cross. I wonder if she will make a quick trip to the bathroom to reapply her cosmetics. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
—For some reason, I remember a lanky teenager. He comes forward with his hands in his pockets. His body language said that he was too cool to be here. I see his parents standing behind him and I knew then that they made him come. Somehow the cross I draw comes out larger than most. After a few steps away, the boy begins to touch the new mark on his forehead. I don’t see if he wipes it off. No matter; it is still true. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
Foreheads are as different from each other as fingerprints: white skin, black skin, olive toned, low hairlines, receding hairlines, bald, V-shaped widow’s peaks, blond ringlets, tight brownish curls, acne-scarred, a dark unibrow, reddish pimples, brown freckles, elegantly dyed highlights, sometimes the seamed edge of a wig or toupee, to name a few. All God’s people, of course. All races and nations, all tribes, from all ages and stages of life come to remember the stark reality of death and dust. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
After this solemn reminder of our mortality, the congregation reads Psalm 51 together. This is the confession of David after he was confronted with his sin. The written instructions for the choirmaster for this Psalm are embarrassing; we don’t read them. They would make people blush: To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.
The sin for which we need forgiveness would be as embarrassing if it were made as public as David’s. He went down to the dust. We too go down to the dust. We are dust and to dust we shall all return.
But we are more than dust in the wind. Much more. Gloriously much more.
The Prayer Book says that we all go down to the dust and yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Why? Because God will give us new bodies, resurrected bodies, glorious bodies, honorable bodies; not made of the earth or dust, but of heaven.
Paul wrote: As was the man of dust (Adam), so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven (Jesus), so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. (1 Corinthians 15:42-49, ESV)
In other words, one day, when all the dust settles, we will be made like Him.
O Happy Day!
Originally posted at the Anglican Pastor blog.