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Dust and Ashes

By Joseph Mangina

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” So run the familiar words spoken during the imposition of ashes in the liturgy for Ash Wednesday. They echo the LORD’s words to Adam, in the aftermath of the primordial Catastrophe (Gen. 3:19). Together with the sign they accompany, they gesture toward the twofold meaning of the season. I am a sinner in need of repentance. I am also a contingent, fragile body, which will one day be food for worms (or what is more likely, given contemporary funeral practices, ashes in an urn or columbarium). In the words of the Anglican Church of Canada’s Book of Alternative Services: “We begin our journey to Easter with the sign of ashes, an ancient sign, speaking of the frailty and uncertainty of human life, and marking the penitence of the community as a whole” (p. 282).

Lent is a season for humility, for recalling that we are creatures of dust, hence not God; this is itself good news. We have enough on our hands, just trying to be reasonable versions of ourselves. It is altogether right, fitting, and proper that God should be the creator and we be his creatures. As Qoheleth reminds his readers, “God is in heaven and you are on earth” — from which he draws the eminently sensible conclusion: “Therefore let your words be few. For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words” (Eccles. 5:2-3).

Nevertheless, the fact that God is God and we are not is a constant sticking point in the divine-human relationship. God and humans confront each other across a seemingly unpassable chasm. Normally we think about this situation from the bottom up, as it were. God is Spirit, is not bound by time, can only be spoken of by way of analogy, etc. But we can also think it from the top down. The creator has — ex nihilo — summoned into being creatures radically different from himself, who are contingent and vulnerable in ways that God is not. To be a creature is to be subject to disease, accident, the forces of wickedness, or simply the inexorable ravages of time, reducing my body to the dust from which it came.

The biblical book that reflects on this state of affairs most profoundly is Job. It is a book filled with dust and ashes, skin and sores. When Satan’s hand reaches out to strike Job’s body, after having taken everything else away, he sits down in an ash heap to scrape his boils. At the end of the work, after many longwinded discourses uttered by both Job and friends, the LORD speaks to Job from out of the whirlwind, eliciting Job’s confession: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. … I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:2, 5-6).

Job might not be the first work of Scripture that leaps to mind as Lenten reading, and yet a case can be made that it is highly appropriate to the season. This is not only because Job repents at the end, but because he is a figure of creaturely “dust.” He is, on the one hand, mere dust. When the LORD parades before him that strange menagerie — the ass and the ostrich, the horse and the eagle, sinewed Behemoth and scaly Leviathan — the message is clearly that Job is meddling in matters above his pay grade, and that he is inadequate to the mystery of Creator and creation alike.

But on the other hand, the LORD’s putting Job in his place is not by way of showing contempt for Job, as if being a creature were something to be despised. God shows solicitude for Job, vindicates him — not altering his fundamental condition (for he is what he is, as both creature and human), but blessing him in the midst of it. I cannot help but think here of the great collect that opens the service for Ash Wednesday:

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing that you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness … (BCP, p. 265)

God is the sworn enemy of our sin, but does not hate us. Quite the opposite! God “hates nothing that he has made.” God wills the redemption of our mortal bodies, offering them a future beyond mortality through Jesus our Lord. As St. Paul writes: “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Cor. 15:49).

In this sense, the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday is — if not a “sacrament” in the proper sense — nevertheless a sign of grace. It is a material, earthy, dusty sign, conferred for the sake of life and communion with God. “Remember that you are dust, and that to dust you shall return” — and that God has promised to raise you from dust to glory.

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