ASH WEDNESDAY: Remember, Man, That You Are Dust


Remember, man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.

–Genesis 3:19

Yeah, right.

You know, in your heart of hearts, that that means everyone else but you—don’t you?

It’s the human condition. We give lip service to our mortality, joking about it at the water cooler with a wry smile—but we live as though there were no tomorrow, and no end of tomorrows. It seems that many of us don’t REALLY believe that one day we will be gone, and the earth will continue on its axis as though nothing had happened.

I was thinking of a story about Madame Pompadour, the French lady of the court who was mistress to King Louis XV. Madame Pompadour was seriously ill and nearing death; but to her last moments, she lived as she had always lived—preening for her audience. On her deathbed, she called out to God, “Wait a second!” as she dabbed her cheeks with rouge.

On Ash Wednesday (observed this year on February 13) and throughout the Lenten season, the Church calls us to prayer and penitence, in preparation for the ultimate journey at the end of our lives. The ashes which are imposed on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday are a tangible reminder of our mortality, of the dissolution of our mortal bodies after death.

Ashes in Scripture and in Contemporary Culture – In the Bible, ashes are a symbol of mourning and penitence. The prophet Job (Job 42:3-6) says to God, “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear; but now mine eye seeth thee. The other eye wandered of its own accord. Wherefor I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

The prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 6:26) called for repentance this way: “O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes.”

And the prophet Daniel (Daniel 9:3) says, “I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes.”

Contemporary folk singer/prophet Michael Smith reflects on mortality in his classic “Dead Egyptian Blues.” King Tut is dead, he says, but soon we’ll be just like him. Pack your peanut butter sandwiches, wear your ashes proudly, and be ready.


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