“You are dust, and to dust you will return”
This is the motto of Ash Wednesday. this sentence is always taken out of context. This verse is from the first book of the Bible, Genesis, chapter 3, verse 19, and is part of a speech given by God to Adam just after Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. God introduced Adam to his new condition of “fallen-human”, or “exiled-out-of-the-garden”.
Ash Wednesday is a Christian tradition that started in the first centuries. At the time, only some Christians would be sprinkled with ashes as a sign of repentance from their sins. In the Middle Age, the church institutionalized this tradition and on Ash Wednesday all believers received ashes in the shape of a cross on their forehead. And it became a holy-day.
So in essence, for one day – Ash Wednesday – we take on the role of Adam and consider that we are the recipients of the sentence that God intended for Adam. We impersonate the “fallen-human”, Adam, who was kicked-off the garden Eden with his wife Eve.
“You are dust, and to dust you will return”
So in case you do not catch the meaning of this verse, this is what it means in modern English: “In case you’ve forgotten, you are going to die one day. You are not Superman.” So here we are: made out of dust, and condemned by God to a mortal life that will end when we will return to dust.
To be completely honest with you, I find this motto and this tradition a bit morbid. The emphasis on death is not really my cup of tea. Yes I know I am a mortal human being, thank you Ash Wednesday for reminding me. But I think I much prefer kicking-off Lent around the pancakes batter than looking at a small pot of ashes and putting some on my forehead.
As a pastor, I once received the advise by a congregant that if there is one theological concept that we are all well aware, it is our finitude and the fact that we are all sinners. I don’t think we should spend too much time reminding people that they are sinners. We all know we are.
Also, it’s good to remind ourselves that Ash Wednesday is a Christian tradition, but not a biblical one. In the Old Testament, covering oneself with dust or ashes is part of a broader liturgy of repentance, but it is not literally the start of Lent (which by the way, is not in the Bible either).
But this is not the end of my message.
There is a way to make sense of Ash Wednesday, without being lost in a “sin-focused tradition” that is rather depressing and morbid.
So here is the thing. Or as Jesus would say: now is the time to open you ears!
The bottom line is that Christians can only make sense of death in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. And the only way that Christians can make sense of the rules that are present in the Old Testament is through the lens of Christ and the New Testament. Genesis and the many stories of the 1st creation help us to understand where we come from, which is great but not really helpful when it comes to understanding where we are heading.
We cannot talk, celebrate, or commemorate death like we do at Ash Wednesday, without a clear and explicit mention of the resurrection of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. For Christians death is not the end. There is more to come. And for Christians, death is not the beginning either, because now, here and now, is the beginning.
Life in Christ, and resurrection is much bigger than death.
Try this exercise today. Check with family, friends, and colleagues at work and ask around you who believe that death does not exist. Most of people will tell you “well yes of course you dummy, death exist”. But what about resurrection?
I – along with many Christians – believe that when Jesus came on earth, he changed the earth in a cosmological way. Which means that the very essence of the earth was transformed. And because the essence was transformed, so our existence was, is, and will be transformed.
In other words, things would never be the same after Jesus died for us on the cross. So today is the starting point of this journey – called Lent – that leads us to Easter. And today I don’t want just to repeat the words for the Old Testament.
With the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it is not true that we are just “dust”. With the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we became a lot more than dust.
With the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are stardust.
We carry in us the love of Christ, the mark of the Blessed, the trace of the Resurrected One, the sign of the new Creation.
So I invite you today to go into the world not with rounded shoulders, heavy with sin, guilt, and shame, but with a straight and healthy position, being reminded of the incredible worth that you carry deep inside you, as followers of Christ, and with the Holy Spirit living inside you.