This week we mark the beginning of Lent with the observance of Ash Wednesday. At First Presbyterian, for only the second time in our history, we will impose ashes on the foreheads of those who desire it, saying, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Frankly, I can see why it has taken 186 years for First Presbyterian to celebrate Ash Wednesday. Reformation sensibilities aside, this annual cross-shaped smudge on the forehead is not a pleasant reminder. Though we cloak it in the ancient “dust to dust” language, the fact is that Ash Wednesday is really a reminder that we are going to die.
We are going to die. The little five year old boy who approached me last year at this service and offered me his lollypop even as I traced the sign of the cross on his head is going to die. So is the young couple who came through my station hand-in hand, love in their eyes, taking them off each other only long enough to watch as my blackened thumb approached their brows. The attorney who rushed from his busy office and barely made it in time to get in line will die as surely as the homeless person who came out in the bus for a hot meal and a warm bed. All these faces, young and old, rich and poor, all colors, all circumstances, all one day closer to the inevitable. I can understand why we try to avoid it. Who wants to be reminded of their own mortality?
No one wants to be reminded, of course, which is why Ash Wednesday is important. It is important because we are all of us prone to forgetting that we are mortal. In our forgetfulness, we are apt to think that we are responsible for all we are and all we have. In our forgetting, we are tempted to fall headlong into a culture that is, as my old professor Peter Hodgson says, “soulless, aggressive, nonchalant, and nihilistic.”
When we remember we are dust and to dust we shall return, we affirm the heart of the Reformed Tradition, “God is God, and we are not.” We acknowledge our utter dependence on God. We recognize that each breath we draw is gift, and each day we live is grace. We are freed from striving, freed from anxiety, freed from fear. We are dust. We belong to God. On Ash Wednesday, we remember who we are.
I hope at some point tomorrow, whether you receive ashes or not, you will take the time to begin your holy Lent by remembering:
You are dust.
You belong to God.