“Remember You are Dust and to Dust You Shall Return”
Of all the days on the liturgical calendar, Ash Wednesday is one of the most popular. There is something about it that touches us on a fundamental level and it is not unusual to see churches full of people who come forward to receive ashes.
The season of Lent is set aside for us to reorient ourselves, to gain the proper perspective on things and put our priorities in order. We take off our old self so we might be properly prepared for the Paschal Mystery.
The ashes typically are imposed with the words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return,” while the sign of the cross is marked on the forehead. This speaks to us of both humility and exaltation, of death and new life. The ashes signify our inner fragility and poverty, and the cross our salvation in the mercy of God.
“You are dust. . . .” These are the words that God said to Adam (Genesis 3:19), recalling how earlier the Lord had “formed the man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life” (Genesis 2:7).
At the start of Lent, we go back to the beginning so that we might go forward to redemption. We are invited to see ourselves as dust again, to detach ourselves from the things of this world and empty ourselves so that we might be filled instead with God’s “breath of life,” that is, with his eternal Spirit. This season is a time to be converted to the very holiness of God as we pray, “A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me” (Psalm 51:12), and engage in penitential practices like abstaining from food and charitable giving of our material goods.
“. . . To dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). Although in creating mankind, God has lifted us up from our lowly origin, we are cautioned against pride. All our earthly goods are destined to be lost. Everything we have, all our worldly possessions, will one day turn to dust, just as the great ancient empires of Egypt and Babylon, Greece and Rome have crumbled. Even before then, time, age, illness and “doctor’s orders” can take away our taste for chocolate or our ability to enjoy a fast car. More to the point, one day our bodies will fail and die.
The beginning of Lent reminds us that this world is passing and that we should put our trust instead in the eternal, in the Lord. The most important thing, the only permanent reality, is God. Rather than storing up earthly treasures, we should seek first his everlasting kingdom (Luke 12:16-34). The blessedness we are promised in Christ’s death and Resurrection “invites us to purify our hearts of bad instincts and to seek the love of God above all else. It teaches us that true happiness is not found in riches or well-being, in human fame or power, or in any human achievement – however beneficial it may be – such as science, technology, and art, or indeed in any creature, but in God alone, the source of every good and of all love” (CCC 1723).
All this is part of our preparation for heaven. The things of the temporal order are necessarily temporary and will all be for naught. But if we recognize our humility and empty ourselves, putting the Lord before all else, we receive infinitely more than we fear we might lose. It is in this salvific perspective that the words of Genesis are repeated in the Ash Wednesday liturgy, inviting us to an awareness of our mortal state and our need for penance. By his Cross and Resurrection, though we be only dust and ashes, we will be made a new creation.