FROM A DUST HEAP TO A MOUNTAIN TOP
On Ash Wednesday, recall the words of the burial rite at the committal of the body which read, “We have entrusted our brother/sister N to God’s mercy and we now commit his/her body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” The essence of these very words will be echoed to you on Ash Wednesday by the priest when he inscribes the sign of the Cross in ashes on your foreheads on the first day of Lent: “Remember O man, that thou art dust, and to dust shalt thou return.” Like Peggy Lee’s popular song, these words urge us to ask, “Is that all there is (to a life—dust and ashes)?”
The words spoken by God to Adam and Eve after the fall demonstrate the gravity of their offense of disobedience: “Dust thou art, and to dust shalt thou return,” and these words resonate with us today, reminding us that by nature and deed we always-already are these living bags of dust and ashes waiting to be buried. Likewise dust and ashes are not very valuable goods: dust accumulates as a result of neglect, and ashes are left in the wake of destruction by fire: dust is dust, ashes are ashes, and the only thing that can be done with these elements is to sweep them up and throw them away. The same can be said of our righteousness—which, at the end of the day when our energy to uphold our hypocrisy dissipates—wears like a threadbare and moth-eaten coat, and of our virtue which tarnishes, decomposes and disintegrates in the short span of a disingenuous, malevolent and spiritually penurious life.
So if it is the case that we are these filthy and useless things, why do we gather on Ash Wednesday and cover ourselves with even more of the same? Perhaps to remind ourselves not only what we are, but who God is, and what he did in and through the incarnation of Christ. Through the life, death and resurrection of Christ, God demonstrates and offers an alternative to beginning in the rubbish heap, and after a brief, wretched and sinful life, returning there as a final destination. The alternative is “The Way of the Cross,” the paving of which Christ’s death invested worthless dust and ashes with infinite value. And the infinite value of this substance can be immediately realised by changing our purpose—or repenting and accepting what God offers us as an alternative to this tiresome path of doom: his mercy. Changing our purpose entails a change of perspective and disposition—from asking with sardonic self-pity, “Is that all there is?” to asserting resolutely “That’s all there is,” mindful of the fullness of grace. On the one hand, all we can pray for is God’s mercy. On the other hand (which may not know what the first hand is doing), God’s mercy is ALL we can pray for, because it comprises the totality of our intentions and is the very foundation of our faith in Christ.
In changing our purpose, we will also begin to act in surprising new ways—for example in beginning to practice a humble piety that is based on God’s mercy and not on pride or anxiety over the possibility that someone else might be outdoing us. A righteousness built and cultivated on divine mercy continuously checks and obliterates any attempts of rationalising and demonstrating that whatever virtue we might possess is rooted in the dust and ashes that we are. From the foundation of divine mercy, a magnificent temple can be built and we are the living stones of this structure.
God has committed himself to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He has given us a sign of this commitment in the cross of Christ, and in each of our own very stylised crosses that he exhorts us to take up and follow him. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the great season of Lent, and we come to take upon ourselves the very sign of the Cross and to commit ourselves to Christ and await his inevitable return. Liturgically we may be preparing for Easter Sunday 40 days from now. But what we are doing is preparing to stand up and be counted: immediately in this place as disciples of Christ and ultimately before the great judgment seat of Christ—humbly hoping to be recognised as subjects of infinite value. Let us reflect further on the words of the burial office, that do not end with “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” but continue stating, “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our frail bodies that they may be conformed to his glorious body, who died, was buried, and rose again for us…”
To him be glory forever.