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The Dust Worthy of Christ—Ash Wednesday 2016

by on February 22, 2016

The famous words of Ash Wednesday are, “From dust you came, and to dust you shall return.” They allude to the “curse” in Genesis 3. Following Adam’s disobedience of eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, he receives the so-called curse: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The curse simply points out that life is a struggle to survive. That is, until it is no longer a struggle, because we are no longer surviving. “You will struggle your whole life long—from dust to dust.”

That’s the physical struggle.

There’s also a deeper, spiritual struggle, and that is the struggle to be humble.

The root word for humility is humus, which is Latin for soil. The “curse” is intended to remind us to be humble: “You are dust; don’t forget it.”

Adam grasped for God in his ignorance and in disobedience.

We grasp for God in our ambition and in our forgetfulness. We forget who God is, and who we are before God. Like Adam, we are not humble.

Humility is remembering who God is and who we are. And on Ash Wednesday, dust and ashes are the reminder.

Throughout the Scripture, one word regularly accompanies dust and ashes, and that word is “repentance.” And so throughout the Bible we read about people with torn clothes and ashes, or who wear sackcloth and ashes or dust.

“Repentance” here is not the moral conversion of popular imagination. Rather it is more simply a return to God, a return to humility.

Jesus, for example, proclaims woe upon two unrepentant cities with this reference to ashes. Why is this so important to Jesus? Is it a warning of impending doom? Or is it rather a cry from a confounded and heartbroken prophet? Jesus knows God’s love for humanity. He IS God’s love. “Why would you NOT return to God?!” The “woe” upon these cities and in our own lives results from not realizing God is with us.

Maybe the words, “From dust you came . . .” aren’t a curse after all. Certainly they are a call to repentance—to return, to remember who God is and who we are.

God created us “from dust”: God crafted life from the dust of the earth.

“And to dust we return.”

Maybe these words mean, “God continues crafting us throughout life. God accompanies us until death.”

Dust and ashes symbolize death, not just because of the Bible. We cause the death of dust and ashes in enormous ways. Are such ashes worthy of Christ on Ash Wednesday? No. These ashes of death and destruction are not worthy of Christ on Ash Wednesday.

The ashes worthy of Christ on Ash Wednesday are these: Ashes that identify us as God’s handiwork at creation; Ashes that remind us that, “In life and in death, we belong to God.”

And if by these ashes we can remember who God is, and who we are—if we can be humble and follow Jesus—then as he did, we too may attain to the resurrection from the dead.

Because these ashes remind us that life, death, and life again belong to God.

 

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