Dust and Ashes

I look forward to Ash Wednesday every year. We’re part of a Baptist church that dabbles in the rich liturgies of the ancient church. Some time ago our former pastor introduced us to the old liturgy: ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The first year we found the ritual strange, but over time its potency seeped in. This year Ash Wednesday feels achingly poignant for me.

We have a new senior pastor at our church. He’s a terrific, energetic guy in his early 40s. Exactly what we needed. I love him. At Ash Wednesday this year I thrilled to see him appear at the pulpit in his cassock and stole: a first for him and us in the the new adventure of an ancient liturgy. He spoke the dramatic words about dust and ashes, and he warned a non-traditional blessing for us was coming. With the imposition of ashes he said, “Remember who you are and whose you are.” Warm words, like a hug of encouragement. We all needed it. 

But, walking back to the pews with ashen cross on my brow, I found the old words echoing in my head: “From dust you have come, and to dust you will return.” Maybe because the dust seems nearer these days. 

The greatest conundrum of life — one I’ve felt since young adulthood — is the stark unfairness of the decay of bodies. Humans are amazing, soulful beings with so much to give, to create. Yet in the end, if we live long enough, aging will slowly take everything away, robbing us bit by bit, breath by breath. At 67 I’ve developed a nice non-fatal chronic disease and feel a few other growing discomforts that accompany normal aging. And at Ash Wednesday this year images flashed in my head of the faces of a few dying old men I’ve been privileged to see. 

I struggle to make sense of it. Of course, I know rationally that everything, literally everything, in the universe follows the same pattern: birth, decay, and death. It’s in the fabric of creation. But what meaning am I supposed to find in the deadly march of time?

Perhaps the point is to help me make progress in moving from illusion to reality. Or to better understand the contours of humility, or the depths of surrender to inevitable lack of control. Maybe the point is to learn how to make the journey with Jesus — how to pray: “Not my will but thine be done.” “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” Lessons for the road ahead that I will not forever be able to ignore.

Do not think that I’m morose, much less infirm or depressed this Ash Wednesday. I’m just more alive to Lent this year. And maybe, just maybe, Easter will be astonishing.

* Photo from Pro Church Media on Unsplash.

8 thoughts on “Dust and Ashes

  1. Bob, with words of depth and richness, you have stated just where those of us approaching 70 and beyond are walking. (I’m one of those well beyond!). Ash Wednesday’s reminder of our mortality would be woeful indeed, were it not for the hope that is ours in the Risen Christ. I join you in the prospect of a glorious Easter!


  2. Mike and I were the sole carers for our four parents as they lived their last years. Watching their last chapters impressed on me the reality and gravity of ashes to ashes. I feel that truth every day as I complete my own journey.


  3. As Chaplain in a retirement community I have offered the ritual of ashes over the past 17 years. Each time I do, I am much aware that some of these amazing saints will not be there for Ash Wednesday next year. This year I am retiring and I will not be there for the imposition of ashes next year. Not planning to bite the dust anytime soon, but it is humbling and equally hope filled for me. Thanks for sharing your experience and insights Bob…I always appreciate your words. Blessings through the introspection of Lent into the joy of Easter!


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