‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’

February 2018 · Ministry News

This Lent, we’ll share a series of weekly reflections provided by members of The Saint Francis Foundation’s Church Relations team. The Rev. Benjamin Thomas, Th.D. has written a few thoughts for today, Ash Wednesday.

About half way through college, I started reading a lot of philosophy which lead to many questions: What is the meaning of life? Why do I exist? What would my parents think if I changed religions? Looking back, I can see that my existential ambitions were pretty typical for a 20-year-old student. I thought that I had discovered life’s most important questions.

Then, a friend invited me to an Ash Wednesday service. I had seen people wandering around with a smudged cross of ash on their forehead, but among the many important questions that I had not asked was what all these ashy foreheads meant.

At that service, the priest inscribed a cross on my forehead with the words “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

I was blown away by the solemn certainty of death. Deeper than any philosophy and far more intellectually sobering than any so-called “deep question,” Ash Wednesday reminded me that human life is bound up with mortality. Twenty-some years later I still treasure those words from Ash Wednesday, but there are other Ash Wednesday words that I have also come to appreciate.

While we will all someday die, there is another, deeper message of Ash Wednesday and Lent that is about more than death and mortality. The cross that we receive on Ash Wednesday is an invitation to a better life: a life with less physical, mental, and spiritual clutter and more room for God’s love and all that this divine love brings.

In the Episcopal tradition we see this reality of God’s love from the very outset of our prayers on Ash Wednesday which begin “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made.” It turns out that the first words we hear in this yearly tolling of mortality’s bell are not the solemn command to “remember that you are dust” but rather a reminder that God loves each of us, dirt and all.