We had a great time on Fat Tuesday. To do some feasting before the start of our first Lent as Catholics, my husband and I went to the the Darwins‘ house. When I first arrived I felt the wind pick up and looked to see some threatening clouds on the horizon, so I hurried to get inside before the rain started. We watched the Super Tuesday election results and talked some smack about politics with our friends as we enjoyed good food, good company and good wine in the warm glow of their home. In the midst of our merrymaking the window screens would occasionally rattle as the wind whipped around outside.
I woke up the next day, Ash Wednesday, feeling a whole lot less merry from having stayed up too late. As I got ready to go to my first ever Ash Wednesday prayer service, I heard the horrible news that tornadoes had ripped through five southern states the night before and that the death toll was at 44 and climbing. That same front that had done nothing more than blow leaves around our city had in other states leveled homes, killed entire families, and utterly devastated large regions of the country. As I drove to the church I thought of how surreal, how horribly impossible it all seemed.
When I got to the church I was initially distracted by making sure I didn’t do anything stupid since I didn’t know what to expect from this service. But I was quickly reminded of the tragedy that had played out on Tuesday night as the distribution of ashes began. We prayed, we listened to Scripture readings, and then we all got in line. And when it came my turn the deacon smeared ashes on my forehead in the shape of a cross, looked at me, and said:
“You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Those words from Genesis 3:19 are probably the one thing on which all humans from every place and time can agree. The modern parlance might be, “You are chemical reactions, and one day those reactions will cease,” or maybe “Your body is matter, made of atoms like all the other lifeless stuff in the universe, and one day it will return to being lifeless matter like everything else,” but regardless of how it is phrased it is nevertheless something we all know to be true. It is probably simultaneously the most important, most agreed upon and most ignored fact of life.
The truth of this statement seemed all the more real this day. It occurred to me that as I sat in the pew with black ashes on my face, listening to beautiful yet somber sound of Attende Domine coming from the chant schola, watching men, women, and children walk through the line to receive ashes, that at this very moment thousands of people were walking through the ashes of what was once their homes. Probably some of the bodies in the funeral homes in Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky and Alabama at that moment were yesterday people who were chatting about whether to give up chocolate or coffee for Lent. As the long line moved forward, I heard “You are dust, and to dust you shall return…You are dust, and to dust you shall return…You are dust, and to dust you shall return,” over and over again. I thought of how casually I’d glanced at the darkening sky the night before, how I’d taken it for granted that my own death is far off as I heard the wind pick up outside.
You are dust.
I never intended to take Lent lightly, but I had fallen into the mode of thinking of it in abstract terms like “a time for spiritual growth” or “an opportunity to grow closer to God.” But in the ashes ritual I was starkly reminded that that the storm clouds are on the horizon for us all; that to build your life around earthly comfort and pleasure is to build a house of cards.
And to dust you shall return.
The announcement of this most inconvenient, inevitable fact of life begs the question: what are we going to do with this information? And that, I now realize, is what Lent is all about.