Lent by David Layman
The Ash Wednesday worship service usually includes the imposition of ashes on the forehead, with a worship leader saying “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” This is a quote from Genesis 3:19, where God pronounces judgment upon man and woman because of their sin, and the mortality which results. Ash Wednesday begins the penitential season of Lent, and it’s worth reflecting on. We can hardly consider these words good news! It’s not like someone is saying “The reason we asked you to ‘come on down’ front is that you just won the lottery!” Human pride urges us to believe, in our youth, at least, that we are hot stuff! Then a worship leader pronounces instead “You are dust”, and if that isn’t bad enough, adds “and to dust you shall return.”
The contemporary burial practice in our culture is embalming, and “funeral directors” go to school to make a deceased body look pretty good for a period of time. In Jesus’ day, Egyptian high officials might be embalmed. But Hebrews were laid in caves as quickly as possible, without embalming. Commonly, a family would share the same cave, so that as bodies decomposed (returned to dust), their bones could be reverently moved aside to make room for the next burial. Note John 19:41, where through the generosity of wealthy Joseph of Arimathea, Jesus was laid in a “new” tomb, where “no one had ever been laid”. Graves in ancient Palestine were typically communal. Jews of that day were used to seeing their loved one’s remains returning to dust, when they entered the cave to lay to rest the latest family member to experience mortality.
The season of Lent reminds us of our mortality. In my earlier days, it seemed easier to not let this truth sink in. When I was 58, I was startled to learn I had significant heart blockages, and needed immediate bypass surgery. Coming out of that surgery where my sternum was cut open and then wired back together, I was shocked to find myself so weak I could’t roll to my other side in bed without help. Nevertheless, soon I was out of bed and hobbling around the nurses’ station, dragging my IV with me, feeling like I’d been run over by a truck. If someone had said “You look like dust!” I’d have considered it a compliment! Other health challenges since then make it hard to deny I am, indeed, dust!
In the years before retirement when I was still placing a smudge of ashes on foreheads and saying “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return,” it strikes me that perhaps I should have added, “Nothing personal!” But no one seemed to take offense at the words and ashes. Because the ashes on the forehead are in the shape of a cross. And because of Christ’s death on the cross for us and our sin, and because of Christ’s Easter resurrection from the grave, we now can be so much more than dust. We can be raised to life eternal with others who have gone before us! That incredibly Good News follows swiftly behind the sobering realization that we are, by nature, dust. Each Lent, it’s appropriate to remember and consider for a few weeks that without Christ’s death and resurrection, we are, well, dust!