Why we need to hear the reminder ‘you are dust’ every year on Ash Wednesday
A Reflection for Ash Wednesday
To borrow and bend a famous lyric, what a difference a year makes! Last year, in late February, we had only just heard of Covid-19. We did not know that it would claim so many lives, that it would fundamentally change our way of life.
For centuries, the church has preached the words of Genesis, touching each of us with ashes as it did so: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” (3:19).
For some time now, for so many of us, the words have sounded somber yet stilted. A bit too morose. Yes, we will all die. Someday. But not today. Not I. Never today. Never I.
Like everything else that stands beyond human life—God, time and space—we might claim to understand death, but we do not know it.
Like everything else that stands beyond human life—God, time and space—we might claim to understand death, but we do not know it. Our own death is not a part of life, something we experience and learn from. It is life’s limit. Small wonder that the true thrust of this sacred season, resurrection, eludes even our imagination.
We do know from history that no way of life is eternal, that cultures and civilizations, as the work of human hands, must pass. But we only know from experience a small fraction of history, our own lives. The rest is inherited guidance. Lessons well learned but easy to forget.
What a difference a year makes! Economies have collapsed, staggered up and fallen again. Inequalities that were already unjust have enlarged. Borders and businesses have been closed. Freedoms and small daily indulgences have vanished in the face of catastrophe. Heroes have arisen, while others now stand before us spiritually bankrupt. And it all happened in one year.
We have a cycling liturgical year because the truths of our faith are larger than we can receive all at once. Perhaps ashes say it best, but even they can’t say it all, not all at once.
“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We hear this admonition again. Not that this year it will finally sound out the bottom of our souls. That is why some of us—but only some of us—will hear it again a year from now, when it will burrow perhaps better still. We share calendars, but each of us receives an utterly individual year of experience.
We have a cycling liturgical year because the truths of our faith are larger than we can receive, more than we can possibly hear all at once. Perhaps ashes say it best—is that why everyone wants them?—but even they can’t say it all, not all at once.