“From dust you were created; to dust you shall return.”
With those words, ashes were smeared on my forehead in the shape of a cross. For some reason the phrase startled me all over again. Maybe I just forgot exactly what gets said at the key moment this day?
The vertical thumb stroke: “From dust you were created.” The little bit of intimacy surprised me too. Brown eyes meeting mine, the press of another’s skin, the whispered voice. I felt myself flinch, before I relaxed into the word “created.” It is awkward but good, this alive created-ness, this being-touched.
Then the horizontal stroke: “To dust you shall return.” This last bit typically is the flinch-inducer. Not only the image of myself someday being sprinkled out of a tin can onto my favorite mountain meadow, but the word “shall.” That little word just kicks the phrase up a level of grave certainty. Whatever else will or will not be in store for me, my dusty end shall come.
Yes I remember this phrase well now, from many Ash Wednesdays. I didn’t grow up in a liturgical tradition, so I experienced it first as a young man in a church that nearly threw the pastor out for introducing the rite one spring. What were these dirty Catholic ashes doing in a Wesleyan church? Why this talk of death in the days leading to Easter, our great celebration of life? The scandal threw everything into a mess that spring, and some people left. It strikes me now that if liturgical folk were paying attention, the ashes of Lent might put us all into more of a scandalized mess than actually happens. We have just been told we shall die, and we file back into our chairs and fiddle with our programs? If the same message had just been delivered over the airplane intercom, would we quietly return to our seats, minds wandering to trivial stuff?
So it’s got my attention, this smear of ashes. But this spring, most surprising of all, the ashes mean for me freedom.
I began my year with a commitment to explore “freedom from fear,” inspired by an essay of that title by Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi (and inspired by her life). That exploration has entailed embracing some new risks. My risks seem meager in comparison with Suu Kyi’s, and I’d feel wimpy admitting them to anyone in her sort of context, but they are real to me all the same. Even as she speaks of a totalitarian society, her words resonate for me: “Chanda-gati [corruption], when not the result of sheer avarice, can be caused by fear of want or fear of losing the goodwill of those one loves; so fear of being surpassed, humiliated, or injured in some way can provide the impetus for ill will.”
This Wednesday’s ashes are a prompt toward liberation from such fear. All that I’m tempted to hoard and clench to my fists shall be dust. I myself shall be dust, plowed back into the elements of the earth. From those elemental molecules has sprung the marvel of created life—my life!—and I get this short exhilarating chance to find out everything beautiful and worthy that’s possible between dust and dust. I may have a few more minutes or a few more decades for it, but count me in.
Sounds bright and brave for the moment. Ok here’s the wimpy part, hedging: I’m in… but only with companions. Who’s in too? If nothing else, the shape of the smear on my forehead reminds us this dusty road’s been travelled, and travelled very well.