Why do I find Ash Wednesday so moving? Is it my childhood memories of a smear of ashes on my forehead after going to church on Ash Wednesday? Is it the words that accompanied those ashes? “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Maybe I remember the feel of the minister’s thumb on my forehead, making the sign of the cross as he spread the ashes, marking me with my identity as a Christian.
Numerous times as an adult, someone has used oil on my forehead in the sign of the cross, mostly when I have asked for prayer for healing, but as a child the only time I remember that feel of Jesus’ cross on my forehead was Ash Wednesday.
Maybe the whole notion of returning to dust took flight in my mind when I read A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L’Engle, my all time favorite L’Engle book. In it, she quotes a prayer from the Episcopal funeral service in the Book of Common Prayer that brings tears to my eyes every time I read it:
You only are immortal, the creator and maker of humankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, ‘You are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
When I was an associate pastor serving in a congregation in Seattle, I performed several graveside services, and I always had the sense of standing in a doorway between this world and the next. Those doorway moments enable us to sing our alleluias even as we grieve at the utter devastation of death.
The English word “dust” that we use for Ash Wednesday services is a bit deceptive. The Ash Wednesday words evoke Genesis 2:7, which describes the creation of Adam like this: “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground” (NRSV). I looked at 20 translations of that verse, and all but two use “dust.” In English, “dust” sounds dry and lifeless.
The Hebrew word can also be translated clay, loam or earth, and the plural meals “clods of earth.” Obviously dust doesn’t form clods or clump together very well, so the Hebrew word must be referring to the kind of moist earth that clumps together. I’ve been enjoying changing the Ash Wednesday words to: Remember that you are formed of the earth, and to earth you will return.
Because of the life, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the return of our bodies to the earth is not the last word. Jesus overcame death, breaking its power, so that when our bodies return to the earth, we can still sing “alleluia.” As we journey through Lent, we reflect on the awful power of sin and death that brought Jesus to earth. We reflect on what he suffered for us, so that we can say at funeral services and on Ash Wednesday,
“All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”