Soon, we will line up to receive the ashes and hear the words: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return". These are challenging words, not least in a society which seems less and less inclined to face the reality of death, and increasingly motivated to hold off that reality through money, influence, nostalgia, fashion, and fads. But the Christian message is that while we rightly laugh at death - for it has been robbed of its sting - we should take our mortality and finitude with deathly seriousness. And I will say this, in terms of the broader societal trend, the reminder of our mortality does not solely benefit a fruitful religious life, it is also of great benefit to a society built on the denial of our most inherent vulnerability.
For truly, it is the forgetting of one's mortality, it is the forgetting of one's place before God, that allows or promotes all manner of egregious actions. Projects of institutional racism - such as slavery or colonisation - rely on the ability of white people to play god over others; making classifications and determinations on who is human and who is not. Situations of Domestic Violence so often rest on the assumption that the abuser ought to be able to (in a god-like manner) control the lives of those around them, to create their own little world where they receive homage and service. The exploitation of the earth - and its catastrophic results - is built by the idea that the earth is ours, and exists to satisfy not only our needs, but our luxurious wants. This lifting of ourselves beyond the rest of the created order, resembles the pattern of striving to cross the threshold of humanity and God seen so frequently in the Bible. In the 1950s, Paul Tillich wrote that it was only because people had so neglected the presence of God - as one who can shake the foundations of the earth - only because they had neglected the judgment of God that comes upon all nations, on all human endeavours, that we were able to invent something as demonic as nuclear weapons. It is in forgetting that we are dust, that we are mortal, that we (and thus our judgments, systems, institutions) are finite, that we allow ourselves to play god in our world to such devastating and destructive ends.
To remember that we are dust, however, does more than ward off the temptation to play god in our world and our homes. To remember that we are dust is to remember that the life we live is a gift. That our life is something we receive, lovingly bestowed by a God who needs nothing from us, and so requires us to prove nothing. God is the potter who forms our life from the dust and clay of the earth and breathes into us the breath of life, and God is the one to whom we are destined, to one who will raise us at the end of all things and receive us into God's eternal life. To remember that we are dust is to remember that our very existence is a testament to the God who loves us, who elects to be for us and for our freedom, a testament to our equality in the eyes of God - who sees not our achievements, nor our worldly stature, but a beloved child.
Ash Wednesday, as the beginning of Lent, calls us to repent of the ways, large and small, that we have sought to breach the divide between Creator and creature, between God and humanity. We remember that God is God and we are not - that nothing of ours can be conflated with the will of God (no system of government, no declaration of war, no national identity, no form of church, no amount of money), that everything on this side of the divide will come under the judgment of God.
And, Ash Wednesday, as the beginning of Lent, reminds us that we are beloved. That we are created in love, redeemed in love, and held in love by the Triune God who gives all good things. That the God who will judge the living and dead, is the God of steadfast love and unparalleled mercy - who judges, not that we would be condemned, but that we would be made righteous.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Remember that you are made from love, for love, and nothing can separate you from that love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
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