The familiar words come from the Book of Common Prayer, which in turn echoes God’s words to Adam in Genesis 3:19. When Adam and Eve are confronted by God for their rebellion, he tells Adam that because of his sin, the whole world will suffer. As for Adam, just as he was taken from the earth, so shall he return to it: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” On Ash Wednesday, we are reminded that we are truly the sons and daughters of Adam, heirs of a cycle of sin and death, doomed to become dust.
But Ash Wednesday is also a promise. The Book of Common Prayer says that we bury a believer, “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Yes, our bodies return to the ground, but it will not always be so. Just as God made Adam from the dust, so we believe that one day all who died will be remade, resurrected into new bodily life.
Christianity holds these two ideas in tension: Christ has defeated death, yet its final defeat is in the future. We have to wait. For now, we still grow old, become sick, and die. And yet we hope for something more. We believe with confidence that something changed two thousand years ago. We believe that there is something beyond the grave, something that, indeed, undoes the grave. We believe that in the end “everything sad will become untrue,” as J.R. R Tolkien wrote in Return of the King.
But not yet. There are forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter.* Forty days to dwell upon what we inherited from our first father. Forty days to anticipate what we will inherit from our True Father. They call to mind the forty days and nights of rain that fell upon the ark. Forty years Israel wandered in the wilderness. Forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness, tested by Satan.
Testing and Waiting
These are times of testing and waiting. Like T.S. Eliot wrote in his poem, “Ash Wednesday,” “Teach us to sit still / Even among these rocks, / Our peace in His will,” Like Noah, the Israelites, and like our Master, we strive to be faithful in the midst of the test. Something has been promised to us and we believe we will see it. The curse we inherited from Adam is broken because the only person who didn’t have to, embraced his own death on our behalf.
Ash Wednesday begins a march toward the Cross, but that is not our final destination. We will walk right past it toward a tomb where we expect to find…nothing. Indeed, we will leave the tomb behind; the first Christians did not visit it or consider it a place of veneration.
In the same way, we also leave the tomb behind. We are sent with a message of hope for a world of ash and dust, that there is more than the futile cycle of life and death we all endure. Christians do not believe in a mere story, or metaphor, or “spiritual truth” (whatever that means). We believe in the literal risen Christ who invites each of us to resurrected life in the here and now, to prepare the world for his coming and the culmination of everything that has been promised.
Ashes to ashes, dust to glory.
*Sundays are not included in the count of days in the Lenten calendar.
As we start the journey of Lent, please give us patience in the waiting and trust in the testing. Help us to be faithful and keep our eyes fixed firmly on you.