Isaiah 58:1-12 - Psalm 103:8-14 - 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 - Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These are the words we hear as the mark of the cross is made on our foreheads, a mark made with ash, with black dust. It is a sobering statement, and something of a morbid act, if we are honest about it. “You are dust.” This proclamation is about much more than the simple fact that we all will die, though it is most definitely that. It is a statement about the future, and it is also a statement about our present. “You are dust.” It’s like saying, You are tiny particles that have no power to resist the wind as it scatters you every which way. You have no shape or coherence of your own; like dust and clay you can be molded into something of usefulness and beauty, and you can also be broken into fragments ready for the dustbin.

Do you rebel at this apparent challenge to the value of our personhood? Or do you, like me, find yourself relieved that at least on this one day of the year we are allowed to admit publicly what we try to hide all year long? Whether it is hard or easy to accept, it is nonetheless an inescapable, if inconvenient, truth – we are dust, and to dust we shall all return. Ash Wednesday, and indeed the entire season of Lent, brings us face to face with this inescapable truth of our mortality, our weakness, our inability to save ourselves. This is the time to face the way our lives are scattered and spread thin and tossed about by fear.

I know about dust – mostly the dust in my house. I am not what you would call a diligent housekeeper. I am better at making messes than at cleaning them up. And the dust that accumulates on top of the refrigerator, under the bed, at the edges of the many, many bookshelves, tells me something about the nature of dust. It takes the shape of whatever holds it up – it has no form in and of itself, except for what it is attracted to. Dust can’t do much on its own. It needs sweeping and molding and shaping.

The dust in my house needs to be swept and put in the garbage. We, however, are a different kind of dust, and God knows it. We are not destined for the trash heap, although we may often feel like it. The poet and pastor Jan Richardson says this more powerfully than anyone else I know; this is her “Blessing the Dust,” written for Ash Wednesday.

All those days
you felt like dust,
like dirt,
as if all you had to do
was turn your face
toward the wind
and be scattered
to the four corners

or swept away
by the smallest breath
as insubstantial—

did you not know
what the Holy One
can do with dust?

This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched.

This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.

This is the moment
we ask for the blessing
that lives within
the ancient ashes,
that makes its home
inside the soil of
this sacred earth.

So let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are

but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,

within the stuff
of which the world
is made
and the stars that blaze
in our bones
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
we bear.

- Jan Richardson[1]


“This is the day/ we freely say/ we are scorched.” I think we need this freedom, to claim our dust-ness, and not to try to pretend otherwise. I am so grateful for Ash Wednesday, for Lent, for a God who doesn’t ask me to pretend to be stronger than I am. I am grateful for the permission to face the reality of being scorched and scattered, because it also gives me permission to let God in. Only if I know I am dust can I even hear the question, “did you not know/ what the Holy One /can do with dust?”

What can the Holy One do with dust? What could the medieval artists do with the powder ground from earth and stones, but mix it with water and egg and paint the most glorious colors human kind has seen before or since? In the right hands, in intelligent and persistent and loving hands, dust becomes luminous, transfigured as Jesus was on the mountaintop with Moses and Elijah, and Peter, and James, and John. Even ordinary dust, held in the loving heart of God, takes on the shape and beauty of holiness. Drenched in the waters of baptism, “ordinary” dust takes on the shape of God and brings blessing to the world.

We claim the dust, and as Jan Richardson writes, we also claim what God can do with the dust. We claim both of these at the same time, and we claim them without apology or shame. That’s the paradox – the holy paradox – of being human in the presence of God. We are dust – and God does marvelous things with us. We are scorched – and that scorching is evidence of what has, in God’s hands, survived the fire. The paradox is the tension that makes music in our lives, like the string of a violin stretched taut and vibrating under the coaxing of a bow.

The ash on our foreheads, the ash of our lives, is made out of the destruction of leaves once green and living. But we know from science that nothing ever is destroyed – it is simply transformed. Matter into energy, molecules broken apart and put together in new and surprising ways. Billions of years ago, as far as we can tell, the Big Bang exploded into atoms of hydrogen and helium, which over hundreds of millions of years were drawn together by gravity into gas clouds and then stars, in whose heat were forged the elements that make up our world. Stardust into planets and plants and living creatures, and yes, us.

What can God do with dust? Apparently a lot. The ash on our foreheads tells us – God takes dust and makes a cross out of it. Takes suffering and turns it into compassion; takes anger and turns it into reconciliation. I’ve seen it happen. Takes death and turns it into life. Not all at once, but over the long journey in the wilderness and across galaxies, little by little, if we give ourselves to it. So today we are marked for the journey, not with sorrow and not with shame, but embracing the beautiful dust that we are, the dust that God loves and shapes and will not let go.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Remember, friends, what God can do with dust.


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