To Dust You Shall Return

To Dust You Shall Return March 2, 2022

“Remember that you are dust.  And to dust you shall return.”

Those words from Genesis 3:19 are made personal on the Ash Wednesday.   That is what the pastor says when he smears ashes on our heads, recalling not only the ancient sign of repentance but the rite of Christian burial (“ashes to ashes, dust to dust”).

Reminders of death have always been considered to be a valuable devotional practice.  The so-called memento mori (meaning,”remember that you will die”) is a staple of classic Christian art (as in motifs of the skull on the table, the hour glass, extinguished candles, wilted flowers, etc.).  And it can be found elsewhere, as in the Roman triumphs, when the general or emperor celebrating his victory with a grand parade would always be accompanied by a slave whispering in his ear, “remember that you will die.”

That custom was intended to temper to victor’s pride in his great accomplishment.  And remembering and reflection on the fact of one’s mortality gives a valuable perspective on the petty grievances, priorities, and ambitions that we tend to be preoccupied with in the course of our brief life.

Today we don’t like to think of death at all.  And yet we’ve been having our share of memento mori.

The COVID epidemic did make us realize, for awhile, the fragility of our lives and the prospect of dying.  But our response overall was to panic and to do everything possible at all costs to keep that from happening.  So most of us didn’t learn much from it.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a memento mori, as the peace that the West has taken for granted is interrupted by a recurrence of old-fashioned war.  We Americans see the photographs and read the reports and need to realize that we could be drawn into this, that our troops are in harm’s way, and that war could happen to us.

Ash Wednesday is a memento mori, but it is one designed to lead us to repentance.

The fall of the Tower of Siloam in which 18 people were killed was a natural disaster, and Pilate’s execution of the Galileans and blasphemously mingling their blood with their sacrifices was a moral outrage.  Both were memento mori to those present with Jesus.  He told them that the people who died in these ways were not to blame, but the shock of their dying should convey another meaning:  “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:3, 5).

The Ash Wednesday service makes that easy.  When we remember that we are dust and that we will return to the dust, we are encouraged to find what is really important in our lives.  And it throws into high relief what is really not important and what undermines our lives in this world and the next–namely, sin.

Whereupon the message of Lent–Jesus died for you, for this–becomes real and precious.


Painting:  “Vanitas” by Philippe de Champaigne (1671) – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain,

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