“Remember that you are dust…”
March 9, 2011 by Paul
Years ago, during my days as a Lutheran pastor, I had the opportunity to lead the chapel service for Ash Wednesday at a nearby Lutheran elementary school. After talking about Lent as a season of sorrow for sin and returning to God, and how the Old Testament people of God would show their sorrow for sin by placiing ashes on their heads, I offered to do the “imposition of ashes” on the foreheads of any students who wished to come forward. I suggested that the 8th graders should come forward first, (to set the example for the younger students), and so they came — from the oldest to the youngest — kneeling and receiving the mark of the cross in ashes on their forehead: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
As we proceeded to work through the grades, we ultimately came to the youngest group in the room, the second graders. (Kindergarten and First Grade had their own chapel, as I recall). And one young man, who was obviously taking all of this very much to heart, after I marked him with the ash cross, and proclaimed to him, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”, looked at me with very big eyes and a very sad face and said, “But, I don’t want to be dust.”
Wow. Talk about “out of the mouth of babes.” I put my hand on his head, looked him in the eye and shook my head and said, “Neither do I, son… neither do I.”
Being dust and returning to dust is not something we often contemplate… nor do we really want to. And yet, unless we are willing to face that fact head-on, unless and until we are willing to face the reality of DEATH, we will never be able to see the purpose of our lives, nor be able to live them fully and rightly.
For Christians, that purpose has been been made clear in Baptism, specifically in the Sign of the Cross made upon us in our baptism – the same Cross marked upon our foreheads with ashes as we begin Lent. The Cross that marks us gives us our IDENTITY – telling us who we are, because it tells us WHOSE we are. The Cross gives us our FAMILY, telling us where we belong, bringing us into relationship with the Trinity of Holy Love: Father, Son, Spirit – and into the community of all those likewise adopted. The Cross also tells us our PURPOSE, answering that deep “Why am I here” question, by giving us a mission to bear the Cross and the message of the Cross into the world for the sake of the world. But that baptism also meant DEATH… “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death…” (St. Paul, Letter to the Romans, 6:3,4) Again we read, in St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ, it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me…” (2:20)
“But I don’t want to be dust”… we all hear that voice crying in our hearts, for dying to self is scary and painful. Letting go of sin, putting to death the desires of the flesh, takes a strength of will that we do not have — and so we pray, “Lord, have mercy. Give me the grace I need to have sincere sorrow for sin, give me the strength of the Spirit of Holiness to turn from sin with my whole heart. Put to death in me all that keeps me from living in and for You.”
In order to have the LIFE that He desires to give us, we must first face DEATH, and — in fact — die. “If anyone would be My disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me.” (St. Luke 9:23). May the Cross of ashes mark not just our foreheads for one day, but our hearts everyday.