Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust
Today is Ash Wednesday. In a few moments, I will walk into a peaceful church, kneel, pray, and receive my priest's thumbprint of ashes in the shape of a small cross on my forehead. He will say to me "remember, oh man, that thou art dust, and to dust you shall return." These are grim words. They are also true. And in the context of Lent, they are to me a great relief; they are the quiet reminder that my Lord and my God, in free love and compassion, also took on this dust for me.
"The prayer that accompanies the distribution of ashes comes from Genesis 3, where the divine judgment is pronounced over all human beings, who had become sinners. The divine judgment falls dark and hopeless over all: "For out of the earth you were taken; you are dust and to dust you shall return. This judgment is directed to the whole person: you are dust; the human person, therefore, and not just a part of his essence, is dust.
Dust- truly a splendid symbol. Dust, this is the image of the commonplace. There is always more than enough of it! One fleck is as good as the next, and all are nameless. It is the symbol of indifference; what does it matter whether it is this dust or that dust? It is all the same. Dust is the symbol of nothingness, because it lies around so loosely. Dust is the symbol of coming to nothing; it has no content, no form, no shape, is nowhere at home.
But God speaks to us: you- the whole of you- are dust. We are always in the process of dying. We are the beings who set our course for death, clearly and inexorably. And through our practical experience we come to realize this.
Dust doubtlessly has an inner relationship, if not an essential identity, with another concept of the Old and New Testaments: the concept of "flesh," the concept of the whole human being. It designates the whole person precisely in his basic otherness to God, in his frailty, in his intellectual and moral weakness, in his separation fro God, which is manifested in sin and death..
From this conclusion, however, we must understand the change that the sentence "the human person is dust" undergoes in the Christian economy of salvation. The good news of salvation rings out: "The Word became flesh." Flesh has become the hinge, the pivot of salvation. Since then, flesh designates not only the pivot and hinge of the movement into nothingness and death, but also the pivot and hinge of a movement that passes through death's nothingness and forlorness into life, into eternity, into God.
Ever since that moment, the sentence of terrifying judgment, "dust you are" is changed for the person of faith and love. The old sense is not abolished; the old sense must be endured and experienced in tears, in the bitterness of nothingness and deahth, in evil and dying, in the bitterness of limitations. But the downward motion of the believer, the descent with Christ into the dust of the earth, has become an upward motion, an ascent above the highest heavens. Christianity does not set us free from the flesh and dust, nor does it bypass flesh and dust; it goes right through flesh and dust. And that is why the expression "dust you are" is still applicable to us; rightly understood, it is a complete expression of our life.
When on Ash Wednesday we hear the words "remember you are dust" we are told then that we are brothers and sisters of the incarnate Lord. We are told everything that we are: nothingness that has been filled with eternity; death that teems with life; futility that redeems; dust that is God's life forever."
- Karl Rahner, Dust You Are