Dust and Ashes

Ash Wednesday         March 1st, 2017

Ash Wednesday. We come to receive on our foreheads the sign of ashes.

An ancient sign of penitence. “I will repent in sackcloth and ashes”. The sign of a broken heart, a heart that seeks relief in an extravagant outward gesture. A heart broken by disappointment, by an awareness of our own failings, our own inability to live up to our ideals. Perhaps this awareness is personal, our own private failings and disappointment. Perhaps it is corporate: our shame and disappointment for what we see around us, for the failure of our species to live responsibly and kindly in this good world.

It is a gesture of self-abasement, a gesture of shame for our pretensions, a way of pouring contempt on all our pride.

It is a gesture that puts our life into perspective, reminding us of the bitter truth we so often try to hide from: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It is a truth that makes so much of our striving and pride look small; it reveals our empty ambition and busyness for what it is: an attempt to cover over our vulnerability and mortality with the illusion of importance. In the face of ashes, we are forced to ask the question, what really matters in our life. Of all the things we spend our time and energy on, what are the things that are still important in the face of our death, what are the things that really matter.

Ashes are a sign of futility. A sign of destruction. They call to mind the burning of forests, here in Nova Scotia, and in the Amazon, the wanton destruction of such rich life. The burning of homes, in Fort McMurray, but also in places of war. They call to mind Aleppo, that ancient and teeming city, reduced literally to dust and ashes.

All this we place on our forehead, in sorrow, in repentance, in the determination not to forget.

Dust and ashes, a sign of the tragedy of our own mortality. We recall those we have known and loved, we recall their warm lively presence, now dust and ashes. In Shakespeare’s wry words:

Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney sweepers come to dust.

That is our tragedy, and we place that sign on our brow as well to face it with sorrow and courage.

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

We are dust, we come from dust. Before our world and all its teeming life came into being, there was the death of stars, flinging out of a burned out shell into empty space their dust and ashes. It was that dust, rich with heavier and more complex elements, that made life in all its variety possible. Remember that you are dust, star-dust: every atom in your body was forged in the heart of an ancient star. So remember that dust and ashes contain not only loss, the ruins of the past, but also the seeds of the future. Returning to the earth, they fertilize it, make new life possible.

And so we wear our ashes also as a sign of hope. A sign of trust in a power beyond anything we could do or imagine, a power that can call forth new things out of destruction, life out of death. We wear our ashes also as a sign of resurrection, a resurrection that is just out of reach for us on our own, but is nonetheless a real promise.

Finally, we wear this cross of ashes not just for ourselves, for our own need and brokenness, but also for another. We wear it as a sign of the one who went to the cross, willingly and in love; and in that cross took on himself all our brokenness and pain and sorrow, all the futility of our drift towards death; and then who showed us beyond the cross the way of new life.

And so this sign of ashes marks our fallenness, our repentance, our mortality, our sorrow; but as a cross it marks us, like the indelible mark made on our forehead in baptism, as Christ’s own forever, marks us a beloved of God, marks us as destined not only for dust and ashes, but through that dust and ashes, for life eternal.