For many people who have attended the burial of a loved one, the words “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” may echo in their minds. It is a haunting phrase that is meant to humble us human beings and remind us that we are not invincible. We are frail and vulnerable. We die.
These words first were said by God to Adam and Eve after they had eaten the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden. God proclaimed: “By the sweat of your face, you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
The smearing of ashes on our foreheads has been a tradition within the church for hundreds of years. But even before the church instituted the Ash Wednesday service, ashes had significance in society. Ashes were used in the ancient times as a symbol of mourning. People would dust themselves with ashes to express sorrow for sins and faults. It was a sign of repentance.
The symbolism hasn’t changed much! Many churches around the world gather on Ash Wednesday to receive an ash cross, reminding us how we are frail humans, not as powerful as we make ourselves out to be. It’s a symbol of humility. We are reminded that we need God, we need forgiveness for our faults. The fact that the ashes are in a shape of a cross give us hope. That even though we have broken our relationship with God, God hasn’t. That’s why Jesus came. Lent helps us focus on the cross and remind us Jesus’ purpose. It’s a long journey. This journey begins with death (we are but dust…) and it ends with death (Christ’s death), but there is hope in this journey which ends with an empty cross.
Kate Mensing is the Pastor at Faith Lutheran Church in Isle.