Ashes to ashes, dust to dust

From dust we came, to dust we shall return.
From dust we came, to dust we shall return.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent for the Catholic community. Attending Catholic school as a kid, we all filed down the hallway to the church, rustling in our starched wool uniforms and Peter Pan collars. We fidgeted in the pews, whispering about which priest did the best sign of the cross, the mark we’d all wear for the rest of the day. Catholics, black-marked for the rest of the world.

“From dust you were born and to dust you shall return,” the priest half-whispered solemnly as he made the sign of the cross in ashes on our foreheads.

The ceremony always half scared me. On Palm Sunday, we all waved olive tree branches in the air as the choir sang “Hosannah,” a triumphant and rhythmic anthem with trumpet accompaniment. The priest processed around the church with a red banner. Blood red, I thought. It waved like a warning flag. Big things are coming. Terrible things. The Passion of the Christ, when we spent three days in remembrance and century-old mourning, was a time I dreaded for its sadness and required fasting but also loved for its pageantry, steeped in tradition. Sitting in the silent, darkened church on Good Friday, listening to the breathing of the men and women around me, shuffling feet and clinking rosary beads, felt like community.

Feeling the priest’s fingers on my forehead sent a shiver down my spine. I thought of the palm branches burning, flames licking away the glory and fanfare they’d signified almost a year before.

To dust you shall return.

Flames are a heavy signifier in religion. Preachers threaten hellfire for sins, and lust is hot, licking at our purity while waving forked tails. Burnin’ hunk o’ love. We’ll burn forever if we’re not careful; we’ll spend eternity in red.

But Ash Wednesday has also reminded me of our communion, as a people.  All of us formed from the dust beneath our feet, if Genesis is to be believed, if only in the symbolic sense. From dust we came, a little ball of nothing springing to the mystical, magical beings that walk and talk and love and have fingers to form new things, new creatures from nothing, seemingly nothing, but dust.

Lent is a season of remembrance, of moderation and meditating on loss. We don’t eat meat on Friday not because of the fishing industry in Northern Italy, although that may have been a factor in its original installation. For me, abstaining from meat once a week is an exercise in consciousness. I’m not a big meat-eater to begin with; a juicy steak holds no temptation for me. But being careful of what I put in my body, even once a week, means my mind is returned to a greater sacrifice, a community larger than myself. When I spend that extra moment, I can give that moment to meditating on what it means to be conscious of our choices, what it means to give something up for a cause larger than my own masticating self.

I can spend a few minutes each week thinking about sacrifice, and what that does for a community of people. How it draws us together, grounds us to the dust we hold in our bodies, our spirits, our souls.

And that’s a lesson we can all use, not just Catholics, not just religiously motivated people, but all of us. Whether we make it to church or not, or whether we feel pulled toward it today, or any other day. What does it mean to be grounded in community, to spend a moment meditating on our responsibility to our fellow human beings?

We came from dust, and we’ll all be dust again, someday. Even our triumphs will settle back to the earth, be blown like dandelion fronds out into the sky. We’ll all become the terra firma that bore us, and how we spent our lives will echo only in the other lives we touched, while we had time to do so. Let’s think about that, this season: Our similarity to dust.



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