"O man, thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return…O woman, thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return." You can’t get much starker than that. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It was at the age of 25 that I first actually realized, actually believed, that I am going to die someday. That someday, this light I carry in me will be snuffed out, and I will go down to the dust, just like everyone who has ever lived.
I have carried this memory with me ever since, and on Ash Wednesdays I always think of it. As I read the scriptures of the “Day of the Lord,” from the prophet Joel, as I lead the penitential Psalm 51, I realize all over again that someday I will be dust. And I think of it as I go through the congregation with the ashes, and I usually have tears forming in the corner of my eye as I put ashes on your heads, because I love you, and to remind you that "O Man, O Woman, thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return" hurts my heart. I don’t want you to be dust, even as I don’t want me to be dust.
The early church carved out Lent as a time for Christians to prepare for the wonder of the resurrection. When the same church holy days come around year after year, they were seeing that people were becoming used to the fact that Easter would come, and that the complete wonder of the miracle of resurrection was being neutralized by familiarity. That first marking of Ash Wednesday and that first Lent at Princeton Seminary did for me what church holy days and the liturgical season of Lent are supposed to do. They reminded me that God working through Christ is a miracle that needs to be discovered anew every year.
When I worked alongside a young pastor a couple of years ago in New England, he wouldn’t use ashes. He anointed people on Ash Wednesday with oil, seeing Ash Wednesday as a time to receive Christ’s healing through repentance, “Repent, and receive the healing of Christ,” he said. That is not wrong, it is just a different understanding of Ash Wednesday.
To me, hearing these texts from Joel and Jesus, praying the Penitential Psalm 51, says to me something else. It says, “Without God, you have no hope.” And for a moment I realize that I am truly dust, that there is no hope for me, that the light that I carry in me will well and truly go out. And it shakes me to the core. If I lived in another time or another culture, this feeling of hopelessness would cause me to tear my clothes and to collapse in a heap and wail.
But that is not the message of Ash Wednesday or Lent. The message is: "O Man, O Woman, thou art indeed dust, and to dust your body will return, but because of the Lord Jesus Christ, your Savior, to whom you have given your heart, the light that you carry in you is carried by him, and that light cannot go out. "
Lent is the time to think about this. To remember that we are hopeless without the Hope of the World, the Light of the World. To hear the stories in Scripture of how Jesus prepared himself to go to Jerusalem to face his own death, to walk with him toward his death, and to watch with him as he dies. To get a glimpse of the hopelessness that would be ours as the Light of the World seems to be put out on a cross.
O Man, O Woman, we may be dust, but we do have hope, we have faith, we have trust, that at the end of this journey through life, as our bodies return to dust, that the light that is in us is carried by the one whose love will never let us go. "For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8:38-39). Nothing, no nothing, will separate us from the love of God for us in Jesus Christ.
Let us believe this good news of the Gospel.
[Note: I preached this sermon on February 10th at a small, rural Presbyterian Church in Johnston County, North Carolina.]