"Remember that you are dust..." With those words we speak the truth about ourselves on Ash Wednesday. It is shorthand for saying, "Remember that one day you are going to die. People will take you to the funeral home, dress up your dead body in an attempt to make it look like you are only sleeping, and people will stare at your lifeless shell knowing that you are not going to sit up in the casket." Yes, remember that you are dust. You nor anyone else in this world is going to get out of life alive. The odds are the same for everyone-- 100% of us die-- 1 out of 1 goes to the grave.
Ash Wednesday is a reminder to me that I am dust. At the moment I may be living, breathing dust, but in the future there will come a point where only the dust will remain. The ashen cross on my forehead is a mark I will wash off after the service, but the meaning of the mark remains. I am dust. I will not get out of this life alive.
Gosh!... I don't want to die! I love my life. I love my wife and children. I love being a pastor and a professor and a writer. I love gardening and going fishing. I love reading a great book while drinking a cup of Earl Grey Tea. I enjoy sitting on my deck at the crack of dawn in the summer drinking a cup of coffee and watching the sun climb over the horizon with the mist low to the ground rising into a dissipating nonexistence. I love good food and fellowship with great friends. God meant for life to be good and my life is good! Gosh!... I don't want to die!"
"Remember that you are dust... but Christ has redeemed you." If the only truth about Ash Wednesday is that we are dust, then Ash Wednesday would only be an occasion for pondering the meaninglessness of it all. All we would be able to say about this life is that we wander aimlessly toward nothingness. We are like that morning mist in the summer rising into a dissipating nonexistence. Such language may be poetic in reference to vapor, but it is meaningless and ungrammatical prose if it speaks the truth about the human condition.
"Christ has redeemed you." With those words, we speak the truth about God on Ash Wednesday. We can do nothing to change the fact that we are dust, but Ash Wednesday also reminds us that Christ can do something about our life. Death does not have the last word. The grave is not our final fate. The ashes on our foreheads remind us of our mortality; the shape of the ashen cross affirms our hope in the God who, in the death and resurrection of Jesus, has reached into the jaws of death and pulled its teeth.
One day I will die. I am dust,... but Christ has redeemed me. My life may be the mist rising, but the light of the Son will keep my life from ending as nothing but dissipating nonexistence.
Thanks be to God!