“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”
Not terribly hopeful, is it? As I get older those words taken on more meaning, more than a simple ritual to remind me of my mortality. Each funeral I preside over, each dying hand I hold, each prayer for a peaceful holy death, adds up in my psyche.
Today a colleague passed away. He was in town for a special event and collapsed of a heart attack. It took six agonizing days for him to die. But his death was peaceful. Well, as peaceful as death can be. Each death brings us full circle in the life-dust cycle.
I read somewhere that I doctor called each death an act of violence. I don’t know if I agree, but it does give me something to think about. If death is a violent intrusion than it’s an inevitable intrusion.
Some preachers try to lighten death’s load, glossing over the pain. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return,” they say, but then they add, “so trust in the Lord.” That’s like finishing a Good Friday service with a hearty “Christ is Risen!”
I think that misses the point. Ash Wednesday is all about the existential crisis that death provokes. Ash Wednesday confronts us with our inevitable dustiness, it pours frigid h20 on our delusions of immortality, it demands that we acknowledge our weakness and fragility. If there is one day in the church year where feeling afraid of death and abandoned by God is acknowledged and affirmed, it’s Ash Wednesday.
Remembering that we are dust and to dust we will return doesn’t ignore our trust in God, but remembers that trust isn’t always easy. And it shouldn’t be. Trust is a gift at the moment of despair. It’s a gift because we can’t really trust God on our own. In fact, trusting God is something that can only be a gift because we fickle human beings don’t really know what it means to trust. At least not in the ways God wants us to and we need to.
Some people trust, others simply cannot summon the strength. To some God give the gift of trust. To others, God doesn’t. I don’t know what that says about God, but I do know what that says about us. It says that we are dust and to dust we will return.
Despite our best efforts.