"Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return." These are the words said to us every Ash Wednesday when we come to the rail not for the Bread of Heaven but for a handful of ashes smeared on our foreheads. It's a stark reminder of our mortality, as Robin Williams puts it in Dead Poets' Society, that we are "food for worms." It's actually what life whispers to us every day we are alive, although we are so programmed to avoid hearing these words that they generally slip past us. Still, as Madeleine L'Engle so eloquently reminds us, the ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday are nothing less than the first handful of dirt thrown into our graves, and if we dare to come to this service and then to come up to the rail, there's no mistaking the message.
It's good for us to be reminded of the finite time we have in this life, if for no other reason than so we are clear that we are mortal and not, in fact, God. That's a bit cliché, I realize, and I don't think any of us actually has our identity mixed up with the Almighty, but we do like to labor under the misconception that we are in control of our own lives and possibly of the lives of others whom we care about. We spend a good deal of our limited time on earth working to strengthen and maintain that control - it helps us feel safe and secure and maybe a bit less anxious about the future. But does it really?
I've come to realize that thinking I am in control of my own life actually makes me feel less safe, less certain about what may lie around the next corner. That's a lot of responsibility, and experience has shown me i'm not nearly as good at managing that responsibility as i'd like to think (or as i'd like others to think). Ash Wednesday and the whole season of Lent which follows - is a welcome reset for me - I am, after all, just dust, and if i can hear those words and believe them, i can relax into the strong embrace of the God who isn't just dust, who isn't mortal or finite and who, experience has shown me is not only capable of caring for me far better than i ever could but who wants to do so.
So maybe those words aren't a frightening threat - a warning to straighten up and do better because time is short. Perhaps they are a promise - "You are dust, but I am not. Remember that."