The Comfort of Ashes

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” – These words from the Ash Wednesday service are meant to be jarring. A reminder of our unsubstantial nature, a reminder of death. The ashes themselves are the crushed and burned palms of hope and joy that once waived in the singing of “Hosanna”. This black soot will be smeared on our foreheads in the shape of a cross as words of our lowliness are repeated over and over “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”.

This year I am finding the reality check of Ash Wednesday particularly comforting. It may seem a bit strange as this is a season that is meant to challenge us. It is a reminder that we are next to nothing and that we need to rely on God for everything that we are and everything that we have. We are but dust. I am but dust and will return to dust. The only thing that will remain is what Christ has instilled in us.

And this is where I find the comfort. It means that there isn’t anything in and of myself that can make me good or successful. In a world that is full of striving, I get to be obsessed with striving too. I look around at the small congregation in the old stone church I attend and I may think that there is something that I should do to contribute to its success, like somehow it is up to me to turn back the clock of time. Or I look around our community struggling with addiction and poverty and think that perhaps by peddling more programs I can bring about a transformation in the heart of those struggles. But I am dust, I cannot do it.

God is actually already working on these things I am so concerned about. I may have a role in what God is doing, but that will depend on how much my bits of dust are infused with God’s Spirit, on how much I listen, or pay attention. I like being in control, but when faced with issues that are clearly above any of my capabilities, it is comforting to know that I can still have a role without all the responsibility and pressure. I am but dust.

We are but dust. I am but dust. These words are meant to draw us into humility, but not humiliation. They aren’t saying that we are worthless or that we are nothing, but are simple reminders of our own limited capabilities and that our true selves are found when we scrape off all the excesses of our lives. Who are we when we are not watching Netflix or Disney +? Who are we when we aren’t trying to get more stuff? Who are we when we are looking not to the next thing, but looking deep into what surrounds us? Who are we when we finally focus off ourselves and care for others? Who are we when we admit that we are not much without God? These are the questions we are invited to consider over Lent and there is a strange comfort and joy in their answers.

We are dust, I am but dust, but God has done great things with nothing, imagine what God can do with a bit of dust!

By Jasmine Chandra

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