And so the season of Lent begins. If you attend Ash Wednesday Mass and receive ashes then you’ll hear one of two things while receiving your ashes. The meaning of one seems fairly obvious. The other seems to confuse people sometimes – but it shouldn’t.
The obvious one is “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.” I think most people get this one. The other is “Remember, man, that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” I love this one.
Some people seem to feel like it’s too negative. And honestly, I think a lot of people just don’t get it. I was confused about it for years, too. I thought – “wait, I thought the reason I was showing up for mass in the first place was to keep this whole turning back into dust thing from happening?! What gives!?”
These words come from scripture, actually. They occur after The Fall when God is explaining to Adam one of the main consequences of his Original Sin – separation from God and mortality. God reminds Adam that his body is dust, and (now that you have fallen) to dust it shall return. Our bodies were no longer eternal, at least not by their fallen nature. We needed to be fixed. The gulf between Man and God needed to be repaired.
Ash Wednesday takes us back to that moment. We are standing in the Garden with Adam and Eve. We are dust and to dust we shall return. There is a great chasm between God and us. We need to be fixed.
And what is the fix? Jesus, of course. The Paschal Mystery. Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is the only thing that crosses the great chasm and has the ability to reconcile us with God. And of course that is precisely the focal point of Lent – Easter.
We lay in dust looking forward with hope to the celebration of Easter. Looking forward to our real saving participation in the Passion of Christ and the one sacrifice on the cross at Calvary.
We remember that we are nothing without Christ. We are nothing but dust if we do not have Easter. And in fact, (unless Jesus comes back before we die) we will all turn back into dust one day. And it is only Jesus’ resurrection that gives us hope that we too shall be risen from the dust once again.
So when you hear these words, “you are dust and unto dust you shall return,” it should put you in the spirit of Lent. It should remind us that not only are our bodies dust, but so are all of the things of this world. All of our money, possessions and earthly accomplishments are not important in themselves. They are all fleeting. They are all, ultimately, dust.
Lent is a time to re-evaluate our lives. Yes, we are dust. Now do we spend our lives chasing more dust? Or are we chasing the one thing that can truly make an eternal difference? Are we chasing the one Being who can actually breathe life into dust?
For a people of dust, this is our only hope.