Ash Wednesday

1 March 2022

Joel 2.1-2, 12-17

Psalm 51.1-17

2 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10

Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21

 Remember!                                                                       ©Suzanne Grimmett

“Remember you are but dust, and to dust you shall return”

These are the words which will shortly be spoken over you as you mark your forehead with a cross of ashes.

It is a confronting action, but I wonder how we interpret it? We know that Lent is a penitential season, and so the risk is that we may find ourselves conjuring up past sins or manufacturing emotions to ensure we feel suitable sorrowful and ashamed. We have over time linked Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and the way of the cross to self-sacrifice, self-abasement and even self-rejection. It has been such an assured narrative that challenging it can seem anti-Christian! The ashes on Ash Wednesday may seem to fit very comfortably with negation of the self- aren’t we saying that we are dust and therefore are lowly and unworthy?

Our readings don’t speak of the dust but do speak of sin and of return to God.

“Wash me thoroughly from my wickedness: and cleanse me from my sin,the Psalmist cries.

There is a sense of needing release from encumbrances. Of days of joy when our spirit might be set free and we can know the wholeness of our outer life reflecting our inner life where what we do is not for show or to impress others but flowing from our relationship with God.

But maybe in our desire to feel suitably penitent we are sensing the truth, but making abasement into a performance art instead of a perception of who we really are and a desire to return to that congruence. Lent is about moving away from the acting, the mask wearing and all piety where religion becomes performance. This surely is what Jesus is pointing to when he says, “Do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.”

What if seeing ourselves as we really are is actually about remembering?

“Remember you are but dust, and to dust you shall return”

What does it mean to you to say that? It carries a reckoning within it; a sense that we cannot think we are too powerful or important because at the end of the day we are created of the same stuff as everything else. In these last years I think we have been reminded quite starkly of the vulnerability of this earthly life and the crisis in Ukraine surely makes us conscious of just how fragile are these human bodies and how easily our life together can be threatened.

I think we forget our origin story, that we are made from dust, and can easily believe we are more powerful than we are. This, rather than self-abasement or self-sacrifice, is at the heart of repentance, and why remembering matters. We forget far too easily, too, that our lives are fleeting and that we will die. Our forgetfulness can drive us to think we need to forge our own life and grab for whatever we can get, from our brothers and sisters and from creation, because it is our right and our pathway to overcoming the haunting that we will lose it all.

Walter Brueggemann writes;

In our amnesia, the very threat of death that we think we have overcome in fact haunts us and drives us in debilitating ways. In what we take to be our massive and effective resistance to death, we in fact succumb. We become creatures in the grasp of the power of death.[1]

Remembering is also about God’s remembering. While we are forgetful of our origins and our frailty, God does not forget and is endlessly attentive. While we are running from death and trying desperately to secure our own empires, God is counting the hairs on our head, holding our tears in a bottle, naming us beloved and breathing life into our bodies in each moment.  

As we look with horror on the violence in the world and particularly the naked aggression of the invasion of Ukraine, we are reminded of the selfish brutality that has been allowed to drive us away from our shared humanity. Creatures in the grasp of the power of death will seize what they can and desperately walk over others to get it, empowered to exploit and oppress by the fear that is always at their back.  Remembering we are creatures, at one with the mortal creatureliness of everything else, can remind us of our role in caring and guarding. It can remind us of the fragility of all things and our responsibility to one another and to all life to nurture and safeguard it, as wise stewards.

We stand at a moment where the waters a begin to recede and we see the terrible damage and loss of life caused by catastrophic rain. We are aware of climate change wrought by the impact of humanity and our carelessness toward the earth and exploitation of its resources. The pandemic reminds us that our wellbeing is caught up with one another, and yet still we leave struggling nations without sufficient vaccines or health care. Although complex historic forces are at play, there is a move for power and expansion of empire being enacted in the Ukraine leading to the terrible loss of innocent life.

To all of this we cry, “Lord have mercy”.

Lament is one of our Lenten voices, but as a people who see death but are not seized by its power, we are also called to raise our voices in hope and live our lives with fresh courage in the season.

The mark we shall shortly receive on our forehead are a mark of remembering not only our mortality, but the fact that we are dust that was breathed into life by a loving creator and sustained in every breath by divine will and attention. The ashes are not a sign of abasement or degradation. They are rather, says Walter Brueggemann, “a sign; we are marked with an alternative identity… a mark affirming whose we are and who we are (cf. Isa 44:5).”[2]

This sign of our alternative identity marks us as having broken free from the seductions of being the self-made man or woman, caught up in the compulsions of consumerism and believing ourselves sole orchestrators of our fate. These ashes are a mark of our liberation from the self-interest and lonely hell of individualism.  We can embrace ourselves as we are, knowing we are weak, and yet holy, held in our fragile creatureliness by the faithful, attentive love of our creator. This sign of our death is a mark of freedom; freedom to be no longer held trapped by fear and greed, but liberated to be loving, creative custodians of life, working for the good of others and the goodness of creation.

May we find that courage and rediscover our goodness this Lenten season.


[1] Brueggemann, Walter. Remember You Are Dust . Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

[2] Brueggemann, Walter. Remember You Are Dust . Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

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