I have held the last of what remains of an earthly life in my hands, whole people now only ashes, years of living reduced to fine rubble, relationships, work, dreams packaged in a plastic bag to be scattered, buried or put in a concrete square or ornate urn. Time after time, the wind has blown or I have brushed my hand against my side leaving a trace of the remains on my black robe of ritual sackcloth. It used to bother me as I did not want those gathered to think I had carelessly handled the dust to which their loved one had returned. Eventually, I came to welcome the inadvertent imposition, a mark of the Communion of the Saints clinging to me as I worshipped.
Every Ash Wednesday I think of them, those who’ve gone to the grave, no longer needing to remember the reality of human finitude we lift up each year. I think about those I looked at in the eyes and said, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return” and then commended at their gritty restoration, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” I miss them. I remember them even as I remember the One who gives us the sure and certain hope of the resurrection.
I remember not only that I am dust and to dust I shall return, but I cling to the memory of those who’ve gone before me even as they have clung to the hem of my impotent garment. I remember because that cloud of witnesses gives me hope that I, too, might run the race set before me and that someone, someday, will wear symbolic sackcloth while wrapped in a band of resurrection white and pray I be recognized as a sheep of the fold of the Good Shepherd.
As the dust and ash is imposed on me, forcing me to see my myriad of limits, I remember. I remember I am surrounded by the household of God, sinners redeemed by grace, limited like me, but ever seeking to imitate Christ, however poorly. I remember that I am incapable of doing the good I know, but forgiven anyway. I remember that even as I have shaken the dust from me feet in haste and without just cause, the Holy Spirit has sometimes blown the dirt on my head that I had thrown at others. I remember that repentance means turning away from my self and toward Jesus. I remember that nothing angers God more than rituals of penitence unaccompanied by actions of love. I remember that this Lenten journey is not only about giving up something, but standing up for someone. I remember that my years on earth will come to an end and that, God willing, my works will follow me and, thanks to the journey Jesus is embarking on, I don’t need those works to save me.
Even as sin clings as closely as the gray remnants of ash on our foreheads, mercy surrounds us like as dust storm stirred up by the relentless wind of the Spirit. Remember. Repent. Turn and follow Jesus Christ, singing alleluia even to the grave until God raises Him from the dead and we are overcome with resurrection joy.