Remember, you are dust. I remember the first time I attended an Ash Wednesday service in a Baptist church. A minister traced the cruciform image on my forehead and whispered these words "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return." These are somber words. But they are ancient words, with more than a trace of biblical allusion. In the garden, the first humans in the poeticized telling of Genesis disobey the divine command to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God responds to this act of infidelity by a rather extended monologue, detailing the pain of childbirth and the toil of farming land for food. Out of the blissful naivete of Adam's and Eve's life (how could they know the import of the divine command without moral knowledge?) they are cast into the roles of mere mortals. God pronounces this odd benediction:
"By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19)
Ancient words. Words uttered millions of times in liturgical hope. Words that embrace life and death under the graceful hand of the Creator. Scientific cosmology tells us that humans share the same building blocks of life with the galaxy . Perhaps the first life emerged from a bit of space dust, the ashen remnants of a dead star. Literally, we are all stardust. In Genesis 2:7 God "formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being." Out of dirt God created the adam, and breathed God's spirit into the human. One day, the first adam would be buried in the ground. We share that destiny, from cradle to grave.
A great chain of being, stretching back, linking all humans who have ever lived. And etched on our foreheads is the sign of the cross. Before that first Easter Sunday, the cross was always and only a sign of death, destruction, and despair. There was not a hint of redemption in its bloody beams. But we know how the story ends. Or rather, how it begins. It begins not with the death of a failed messiah, but with the resurrection of our Lord. You can't have cross without resurrection.
So when you take the sign of the cross on Ash Wednesday, know that it is a mixture of grief and hope, sin and redemption, death and resurrection which is etched on your forehead. A friend once told me during a time of profound moral crisis that "grace always trumps the law." Take the ashes as a sign of God's unending grace. Take the ashes as the free offer of mercy, the assurance of pardon, through Christ our Lord.