Remember You Are Dust
Posted February 18, 2010on:
Ash Wednesday is so intimate it almost makes me uncomfortable. A handshake, a hug, a pat on the back—that is as close as I get to touching the people in my congregation on a regular basis. Except on Ash Wednesday.
They line up in front of me, and one at a time step forward so that we are face-to-face, close enough to feel each others’ breath. We look at one another in the eye, a little bit uncomfortable with this proximity and with the ritual we are about to perform.
Dipping a blackened thumb into a pile of ashes, I brush back the bangs from their forehead, a gesture usually reserved for lovers and mothers. I notice their faces in a new way—sweaty or dry, wrinkled or smooth, powdered or naked. I touch their skin with the ashes and make the sign of the cross on their forehead. We look into one anothers’ eyes, and in this moment of trust and intimacy, I remind them they are going to die. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Somehow, in the intimacy of that moment and the grace of worship, this pronouncement does not provoke fear. Always, we smile at one another in recognition. What a relief, these ashes! Our finitude is received as a gift. We will not endure this life’s suffering forever. The weight of the world does not rest on our shoulders, for we are only dust. The breath of God, which gave us life from the dust, will handle the burden of eternity. We can let go of our worry about forever and simply serve one another today.
My eyes do brim with tears from time to time, as I darken the forehead of some innocent young child whom I wish to protect from the reality of death, or the elderly woman who knows that reality is close at hand. But they are not tears of anguish or anxiety–they are the tears that come when you touch holiness, and know you have been blessed.
When we remember we are dust, we also remember that we are made of the breath of God. The touch is intimate, and it is holy.