Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Growing up in a Southern Baptist context, I never heard of Lent. I had no idea the Christian Church had “seasons” or its own calendar. That was unfortunate. Discovering this in my college years came as a great surprise and a benefit to me ever since. For it became apparent to me that my navigation of this world and my life would be –if not easier then–more meaningful simply because I could comprehend my life as developmental, evolutionary which is to say, an unfolding mystery and journey.
The Lenten season begins this Ash Wednesday and marks the formal beginning of the season of Lent and that season is one of reflection, examination of our consciences and souls and repentance. We do this especially as we recall the testing of our Lord in the wilderness, just after his baptism. I sometimes get myself down to an Episcopalian church to have the sign of the cross made on my forehead with ashes. Baptists do not hand out ashes or participate (as a rule anyway) in this ritual act. I can tell you from my own experience, it is a powerful moment to have a priest rub those ashes onto your forehead as she says those solemn words, “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Whether or not you participate in such a rite, the truth of those words should stir us to a season of contemplation and repentance.
Ashes as a sign of sorrow have been with us for a long time. In the ancient book of Job, we find that the stricken man “sat among the ashes.” This was a sign of grief and sorrow.
Leon Wieseltier in is book, Kaddish, wrote in his book about rending one’s clothes as a sign of grief. He pointed out that the mourner who rends thus gestures outwardly what has in fact takenplace inwardly. “This act of violence,” Wieseltier writes, “dignifies the external truth and the internal truth of what has happened.” So with the imposition of ashes on our foreheads: it is an outward sign of an inner sorrow and grief: for our participation in the ruin of the world, for our grief for life that is short and brief, and a declaration that we will live more faithfully and justly in the days to come. As the Book of Common Prayer declares:
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. Have mercy on us, Lord.