Bernie has his mittens, but I treasure a pair of fingerless gloves a friend made for me. Somehow she knitted a saying on each of them in cursive script. One says, “Be humble, for you are made of dust.” The other says, “Be noble, for you are made of stars.”
These sayings remind me of the traditional blessing of Ash Wednesday, which was Feb. 17 in 2021, the ritual that kicks off the 40 days of preparation for Easter known as Lent. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return,” we say, making the sign of the cross on foreheads with a mixture of ash and olive oil.
Never do I speak these words without feeling how odd and radical they sound against the death-denying American cultural backdrop. We fear death and try not to look at it too closely. In the pandemic, I’ve seen how a lack of emotional and spiritual preparedness for death’s inevitability exacerbates anxiety.
In contrast, at Ash Wednesday, we face death squarely and bear its unavoidable reality with courage and trust. I am always moved by the blend of humility and hopefulness in the eyes of each person who comes forward to receive the ashes.
I’ve been in ministry long enough to have drawn the ash-cross on the foreheads of many whom I have now commended to God with a similar phrase: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” I have also made the ash-sign on the brows of my son when they were curious toddlers, eager to be included in the oddly messy church ritual. I was struck to the core in the paradox of marking them with a symbol of both death and eternal life.
Whether or not you belong to a Christian tradition that observes Ash Wednesday, there is grace here for all mortal beings. Our bodies are both exquisite and fragile. As resilient as we can be, a day will come when vitality ebbs away. The ashes invite us to acknowledge without shame our common human finitude, recognizing death as the finality which makes every day precious. There is relief and freedom in accepting our limitations.
Yet that is not the only message. In my tradition, the statement about dust is followed by these words: “In life and in death, you belong to God.” Ashes are carbon, the elemental building block of life on earth. What looks like destruction is the foundation of new creation. Next time you touch ashes in your fireplace or elsewhere, take heart in this paradox: You are both finite and precious, humble and noble. Death is never only the end of the story, but also the beginning of a new one.