Ash Wednesday: Of Earth and Heaven

by Kendra Langdon Juskus

[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly reflections, called Deep Down Things, published on Wednesdays.]

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

- from the liturgy for Ash Wednesday (and Genesis 3:19)

On Ash Wednesday, in some Christian traditions, these words are said to us as ashes are rubbed on our foreheads in place of the customary oil. The rest of the liturgical year, that oil symbolizes blessing. The ashes symbolize mourning, penance, and a recognition of human frailty. But even as ashes are placed on our skin, we are not told we are ash; we are told we are dust.

Better dust than ash, I say. Ash is the remnant, the reminder of something that has been destroyed. While dust, too, is hardly anything, and easily carried by a breeze, it isn’t only an end. It can also be a beginning; a delicate worthlessness, yes, but one that can be transformed into something of value.

Dust conjures up images of aridity, drought, barrenness. One pictures the slope of Haiti’s mountainsides, rootless clods of dirt crumbling into the valleys. Or the fields of Kenya after its debilitating drought, seedlings drooping into the cracks of a dry and cratered land. Or our own country’s greatest drought of recent history, the Dust Bowl: dust drifting across the landscape like snow, filling the cracks between the floorboards, clotting in the nose and ears. Dust clinging to dust.

Still, as the prophet Ezekiel was told as he stood up to his ankles in dry bones, “This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life.”

Dust is void, powerless, until filled with the Spirit.

“Remember,” the liturgy for Ash Wednesday says, and remembering is indeed one of our callings—one that we too often neglect. Remember that we are of barren ground, and the breath in our nostrils comes only from the mouth of God. Remember that our neighbors are also a clumsy pastiche of dust and spirit, and therefore nothing less than ourselves. Remember that the ground that holds us is the dust that bore us, the dirt that builds the food we eat, and the mud that holds the water we drink.

Remember that we return to it. And remember that we rise.

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