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Remember You Are Dust

One of my favorite writers, Lauren Winner, says “The imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday is nothing if not bold.” The whole day is bold, from the black smudge of ashes on the middle of my forehead, meant to be a sign of my mortality and penitence and a symbol of both death and resurrection all at once, to the liturgy where we acknowledge that we are dust and to dust we shall return.

I feel terribly bold asking for God’s mercy when we pray our corporate confession together: We confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not forgiven others, as we have been forgiven.

In the same moment that I’m struck by a wave of my own shortcomings, I’m also reminded of a verse I memorized so long ago in Sunday school that I only know it in ye olde King James Version: Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:16)

The minister moves slowly down the row of those kneeling for the imposition of ashes. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” she says to each one. The gravity of this statement pulls stronger with each quiet repetition.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return….

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return….

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return….

When it’s my turn, she smudges a cross on my forehead, looks into my eyes, pronounces my mortality: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I think about how Christ died for me—me, just a bunch of dust!—and my chest tightens, like those times I step outside on a frosty winter morning and too quickly inhale a deep, stinging breath.

But my lungs expand again when we read this together:

The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust. (Psalm 103:8-14)

Lent is a time of self-examination and confession; we are hyper-aware of the ways we fall short of the life into which God has called us, and we are bold enough to admit to ourselves the way we play a part in the injustices of the world. We confess to God and to each other: We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. And through it all our refrain is this: the Lord remembers we are dust, has compassion on us, mercifully forgives us, loves us, chooses us anyway. God even makes beautiful things out of dust.

So the minister sends us out saying, “Go in peace to love and serve God.” And being sent out to do the work that God has given us to do might be the boldest thing of all.

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